Foley on Microsoft

Thinking Differently About Open Source

Don't be fooled -- Microsoft still has a long way to go.

On the heels of the Redmond March cover story ("Open Source Enlightenment") that proclaimed Microsoft to be "veering toward the light" in terms of its approach to open source, I'm going to beg to differ.

My contention is this: After a period of promise, Microsoft's open source strategy is flailing again. Microsoft needs a major course correction -- and soon.

Sure, on the surface it looks like Microsoft is making all the right moves. Microsoft's Platform Strategy Unit General Manager Bill Hilf has a good rep with open source community leaders. Microsoft's CodePlex code-repository site hosts a number of interesting shared and open source projects. Microsoft's Linux lab is testing lots of Linux distros to help Microsoft customers in their quest for Windows-Linux interoperability.

At the start of this decade, after finally convincing Chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer to curtail their use of the "C" words (cancer and communist) in reference to Linux, Redmond's competitive strategists seemed to be making headway. But then Microsoft took two steps back with its "Get the Facts" campaign. Microsoft paid market researchers to issue studies that, for some odd reason, almost always found Windows triumphant in any kind of price/performance/total-cost-of-ownership match-up with Linux.

As of this writing, I'm hearing that Microsoft is working to distance itself from the maligned Get the Facts campaign and may let it quietly fade away. If that's true, bravo! Unfortunately, at the same time, Microsoft also seems to be renewing its anti-open source rhetoric.

Ballmer just can't stop himself from mentioning alleged open source IP violations just about every time he touts Microsoft's November 2006 technology partnership with Novell -- much to Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian's dismay. Former Novellian and lead Samba developer Jeremy Allison has stated publicly that Microsoft has been threatening customers with potential patent lawsuits to convince them to license Microsoft technologies. And Microsoft's General Manager of Interoperability and Standards, Tom Robertson, recently was quoted hinting that Red Hat was poised to sign a Novell-like partnership deal with Microsoft -- in spite of Red Hat's vehement denials.

What if Microsoft did a 180-degree turn and decided to actually do what it's claiming to be doing: join forces with open source vendors instead of trying to beat them? In a winner-takes-all culture like Microsoft's, it would be a tough sell to get Ballmer and the rest of the brass to do something completely counterintuitive.

But think this through, like former Softie Stephen Walli did. (Walli is a former business development manager for Windows, and, before that, a program manager on Rotor, Microsoft's Shared Source implementation of the Common Language Infrastructure. He is currently an independent consultant.)

Walli suggests that Microsoft release the Windows SharePoint Server and SQL Server code as open source. Not Shared Source, but under the GNU General Public License (GPL) 2. While both products are important to Microsoft's future, they aren't the cash cows that Windows and Office are, making them the perfect candidates for experimentation, according to Walli.

Microsoft could still make money off open sourced SharePoint and SQL Server, by selling subscription-based services around them. This would serve to galvanize a whole new force of independent developers to build on top of these open sourced platforms to boot, Walli argues, while simultaneously getting Microsoft's technologies further entrenched.

Through a show of true openness and good faith, Microsoft might win over some of its naysayers -- and maybe even convince another open source vendor or two that a real Microsoft technology partnership, without the threat of legal fear, uncertainty and doubt, just might be possible.

Walli summarizes: "Re-invention is necessary. IBM did it. Sun is doing it. No point waiting until you hurt as badly as they did to begin."

What do you think? Can the Microsoft zebra change its stripes? Should Microsoft take a chance and really dare to think differently vis-a-vis open source?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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