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
") 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
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
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
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?
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.