Open Source at Microsoft: my stance on Microsoft Open Source Strategy

I want to take the opportunity here to clarify my stance and how I managed to form my analysis of Microsoft Open Source Strategy.

A Change of Perception

A Change of Perception by jpaul

What has ignited this desire of mine to clarify these issues was the publication on my blog of the post Microsoft and OSS: another battle brewing”, unfortunately published without my editorial approval, and without my ability to review the contents before publication. After reading the article and having personally talked with the contributing editor, Carlo Daffara,I realized he was expressing some concerns about the clarity of my position relative to Microsoft and open source. Let me try to make it clearer.

A little background.

I have been consulting with Microsoft on different subjects over the last two years.

The first time I happened to work with Microsoft was back in June 2006. I took part to the Microsoft’s Linux&Open Source Briefing partner program as open source expert. Techstream, a training firm engaged by Microsoft to deliver worldwide such program, found me over the internet, and eventually hired me after a couple of job interviews.

When I visited Microsoft’s offices in Milan the first time, I barely knew there was an open source group at Microsoft. During the briefing we spoke at large about open source business and production models, and I was surprised by their interest in the subject.

At the same time it was interesting for myself to see how Microsoft was differentiating itself from open source, as was enlightening to meet Microsoft’s VARs and ISVs partners joining the event.

As a matter of fact some of them were already using open source technologies, and were posing precise and accurate questions about Microsoft’s strategy in this respect.

Since then I got used to openly and publicly discuss with Microsoft people about our different views, and I eventually ended to consult with them in 2007.

At that point I was contracted to help them find ways to cooperate with theFOSS world on interoperability, licensing schemas and possibly joint initiatives.

Understanding how delicate it is to be an open source advocate and to consult to Microsoft, I also took a decision to avoid potential conflicts of interest within the OpenOffice.org Italian Association (PLIO). As I had been asked from Microsoft to create open source OpenXML tools for developers, I refrained from taking any position about the OpenXML vote within PLIO, which was directly involved within the JTC1 committee working on DIS29500. Not only. When I concluded my collaboration with Microsoft I thought wiser to keep myself out of the OpenXML vote discussion.

Getting back to Microsoft’s open source strategy, I invited Pierpaolo Boccadamo, head of Microsoft’s Platform Strategy in Italy, at the Commercial Open Source Conference I organized in June last year. I was happy to invite him because for the very first time Microsoft was going to really speak about open source here in Italy, while also announcing the opening of its second open source lab in Italy.

I was also part of Microsoft’s Italy work towards an open source compatible strategy. I have had the chance to talk to Sam Ramji and to many others like Robert Duffner and Bryan Kirschner, with whom I eventually developed my own idea on the Microsoft open-source strategy.

Five (false) factual facts.

1.The FOSS vs proprietary software dichotomy. The historical dichotomy is (slowly) disappearing, just because customers are demanding it. CIOs at Open Source Think Tank, essays from the Open Source Alliances and other sources are telling us about the importance to learn to live in a hybrid world. Microsoft is giving up with the anachronistic idea to keep customers using only proprietary software, at the same extent the idea to fully migrate to open source is of little meaning too. Researches on the transformation of open sourceare confirming that also the distinction between open source and proprietary vendors is reducing now.

OSS 2.0 blurs the distinction between open source and proprietary software. Key open source players such as Red Hat and Novell’s SUSE Linux business unit position their Linux distributions to be more similar to a proprietary model. Traditional proprietary companies, such as HP, IBM and Microsoft, move more towards open source. Nevertheless, in the OSS 2.0 model, these companies must still satisfy certain criteria in relation to acceptable community values (a significant challenge for OSS 2.0). Large commercial organizations are not always well perceived within the open source community. Companies such as IBM, Sun, and HP support open source initiatives, but their support for patents is clearly at odds with the open source philosophy. Also, the quintessential patron of open source, Red Hat, could struggle in future as its policies increasingly conflict with community spirit and values. Use of subscription agreements and effective customer lock-ins through confidential service bulletins are close to the boundary of acceptable community values.

2. Open Source Governance? We do not need it. Open source analystsdescribe the goal to define a trusted library of open source software and components a daunting task. Horizontal vendors offering open source support on certified repositories of open source technology are not yet enabling enterprises to manage open source like a portfolio. Besides that, companies acquiring open source software – often without any procurement process involved (downloading it) – are not happy to spend money on open source governance, as reported by Michael Goulde, senior analyst at Forrester:

The paradox is a lot of companies are getting into open source to reduce their costs. They’re not excited to spend money to manage it.

3. For Microsoft (and its partners) everything is a PC. Actually Microsoft was the PC company, and that’s why Microsoft developed effective programs to enable its partners to scale their growth. Microsoft progressively became a platform provider, a crucial hub in the IT ecosystem. Marco Iansiti in his Information Technology Ecosystem Health and Performance explains clearly the role of platform providers.

Platform providers perform a critical role in an ecosystem – they deliver consistent and reliable components that make application providers more productive. The tools and building blocks they provide to ecosystem members make it easier to create powerful applications that in turn benefit end-users. In doing so, platform providers can act as “Keystones” to their ecosystems.

Linux enthusiasts might not like Microsoft’s server market share, but they can hardly ignore it. Both Windows and Linux are complemented by extensive tool sets used by millions of developers, and Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional program is keeping to foster its communities. Tools, indeed, are just part of the general picture, a picture in which Microsoft creates a lot of value for its ecosystem.

4. Microsoft won’t raise any interest among OSS developers.This argument is not supported by any research. On the contrary both Lakhani and Wolf and Bonaccorsi findings on motivations to contribute returned a different feedback. The former research indicates that only a tiny fractions of respondents would never participate in a closed source project, while the latter shows that firms emphasize economic and technological reasons for contributing to Open Source and do not subscribe to many social motivations.

5. Microsoft IP “broken bridges” will keep Microsoft (and its partners) out of open source business. There are still some obstacles to be addressed before Microsoft can work at with open source in all of its forms, but many open source vendors could already take advantage of the business opportunity. At the end of the day open source firms need, just like any other software firm, to sell preferably products, otherwise subscriptions or services (the very last option). As a matter of fact companies like Zimbra sell proprietary Enterprise editions using Microsoft APIs, and this don’t make them look less open source than others. It is definitely true that Microsoft’s IP policy affects “downstream” developers, as rightly Matt Asay points out. Microsoft, in this respect, has still to work hard to balance communities’ and company’s interests, and I am looking forward to comment Microsoft’s future steps in this direction.

Here my thoughts.

Microsoft, just like any other major IT vendors, understands that open source is a very important part of the IT environment today, but differently from any other, it has a huge partner channel, lots of developers skilled on its platforms, and a strong economic incentive in being a platform player.

Notwithstanding Microsoft choice not to give away its core platforms, Microsoft could play a very important role bringing under its umbrella open source firms. Co-marketing partnerships appear to be appealing from both sides. Microsoft can greatly help to reduce uncertainty, delivering WAMP stacks and similar supported off-the-shelf open source solutions based on Microsoft’s platforms. Microsoft’s customers could eventually reduce the cost of open source software selection, a price many are not happy to pay.

Fostering its own communities, even with specific programs, today Microsoft is providing causes for effects, answering another frequent question about the availability of open source developers and architects.

Where other see just a monopoly, I see our (open source) potential. The other day talking with Stacey Schneider I asked her a feedback on Hyperic experience with Microsoft, below the full transcript.

From Hyperic’s perspective, Microsoft has been great at recognizing what a great partner Hyperic can be. Their Open Source Labs have performed tests and run Hyperic – delivering writeups and podcasts on their opinions of the software (positive!) to their communities. Their partner organization has recently awarded Hyperic a free consulting engagement (they paid for it) designed to review Hyperic’s overall business plan and help us navigate the Microsoft organization in the best way to maximize our participation in go to market activities. They have even gone so far as to become a customer – using Hyperic for management for some technology they acquired that is not yet moved over to .NET. They recognize our cross-platform abilities, and our overall scalability and usability.
As a company, Microsoft is still figuring out many of its approaches and participation in the open source world. Some we may not all agree with in their first stages, however as a partner and a vendor to Microsoft, we have seen constant attention to our space, and have seen recognition that they need to work with mixed environments and mixed vendors nicely. That said, if you are an all windows shop – they are quick to point out you probably want to use their solution which is built just for windows and designed to optimize that experience. We’re fine with that – we think the mixed market is much bigger.

My open source world is pretty hybrid, what about yours?

Technorati Tags: commercial open source, open business, Microsoft Open Source, open source strategy, SamRamji, MichaelGould, Open Source Think Tank, Open Solutions Alliance, Techstream

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4 thoughts on “Open Source at Microsoft: my stance on Microsoft Open Source Strategy

  1. Roberto, thank you for the insight, very interesting. Actually I have seen a lot of changes in Microsoft attitude in the last year, which conducted to a rather successful negotiation in the implementation of the measures imposed by the Commission and upheld by the Court of Justice.

    As I publicly reckoned during the last meeting in Geneva on Open Standards, directly to Microsoft executives, they sometimes went beyond their obligation (in other fields they are still quite behind, but a long journey starts with a small first step). I am direct witness of potential developments.

    So much that I have written an essay urging Microsoft to take the lead on Free Software, as you can read in my blog: Is Microsoft to Lead the Free Software Crusade?. I think it is a variation on the same tune.

    Roberto, keek up the good work!

  2. Thank you very much for your feedback Carlo!

    I suspect our vision of the future is not welcomed by many free software advocates, and as usual only time could tell.

    For the time being I’ll do my best to keep myself equally critical of proprietary and open source myths, speaking on the merits and pitfalls that Microsoft’s strategy has for open source firms and developers.

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