Foley on Microsoft

For Microsoft, 'Open' Is the Hardest Word

When it comes to being open source-friendly, it's usually one step forward, two steps back.

With apologies to Sir Elton John, "sorry" is not the hardest word for Microsoft. It's "open." To be fair, "open" has become a loaded, almost meaningless term for all of technology, not just Microsoft. But in the past couple of months, the 'Softies have tripped over the word more than most.

Here's the problem: Microsoft is not a homogeneous or small company. Even after layoffs, it will consist of some 95,000 workers, with different ideas about open source, open processes and open standards. Yes, there's a strong group inside the company -- Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie is its biggest cheerleader -- that believes that Microsoft must work with open source and open standards bodies. But there's also a sizeable entrenched camp that sees open source -- and not just the Linux subset of that community -- as Public Enemy No. 1.

Every time the "do less evil" elements at Microsoft take a step forward in the eyes of the open source camp -- by creating a Web gallery that features open source apps, for instance -- individuals who still hope there's a chance of wiping open source off the map cause the 'Softies to take two steps back. An example of this backpedaling: Suing GPS vendor TomTom for patent infringement while trying to cover up the fact that the GNU General Public License and Linux are a key part of the case. (Microsoft and TomTom announced a settlement in March.)

Also in March, we saw how many disparate, conflicting organizations there are inside of Microsoft. Within the span of one week, the company:

  • Released a position paper seeking to clarify its stance on open source, entitled "Participation in a World of Choice: Perspectives on Open Source and Microsoft." The paper is very open source-friendly, but it feels likes it's been combed over by an entire legal team.

  • Stirred up a blog war with IBM, Sun, VMware and the other companies backing the "Open Cloud Manifesto," which is basically a bland positioning document that discusses the importance of open standards in the evolving cloud-computing world. Microsoft went on the warpath, attacking the group for failing to be open in its processes. I bet the 'Softies didn't like the "open" lingo permeating the document, remembering how that word got Microsoft in so much trouble in the OpenDocument Format versus Office Open XML battle not so long ago.

  • Supported Marshall Phelps's effort to portray Microsoft's IP licensing initiatives as something other than a money-making operation. Phelps, Microsoft's intellectual property chief, recently released a book called "Burning the Ships: Intellectual Property and the Transformation of Microsoft" (Wiley, 2009). In it, Phelps essentially claims the main reason Microsoft is so interested in IP licensing is that the company wants to be more "open." In reality, however, Microsoft's recent spate of IP licensing deals has been mostly about making money.

Is it any wonder that many open source vendors, users and developers don't trust Microsoft? It's tough to know, day-to-day, if you're dealing with the open source-agnostic Microsoft or the Microsoft that's claiming Linux and open source violate 235 Microsoft patents, while refusing to provide further details.

Unlike some Microsoft watchers, I have no problem with Microsoft being closed source. There should be no identity crisis at Microsoft: It's fundamentally a proprietary software vendor that makes its money selling software, services and sometimes even a little hardware. But Microsoft still doesn't have a cohesive, understandable approach to dealing with open source, open standards and open processes -- and that's why the perception and strategy disconnects involving Microsoft will continue to occur.

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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