Microsoft's New Mantra: Peace, Love, And Open Source? - InformationWeek

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2/21/2008
04:16 PM
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Microsoft's New Mantra: Peace, Love, And Open Source?

People who work with open-source software tend to study Microsoft the way Kremlinologists once studied the Soviet Union: from the outside, and often at a considerable distance. It's a process that requires years of experience, a keen eye for detail -- and above all, a talent for reading between the lines.

People who work with open-source software tend to study Microsoft the way Kremlinologists once studied the Soviet Union: from the outside, and often at a considerable distance. It's a process that requires years of experience, a keen eye for detail -- and above all, a talent for reading between the lines.In Microsoft's case, when I read between the lines I see hints of a tug-of-war between two factions within the company's leadership. The Soviet analogy is useful here, too, so let's run with it: Think of one group as Ray Ozzie's glasnost gang and the other as Steve Ballmer's status-quo apparatchiks.

It's an ironic analogy, of course. Once upon a time, Microsoft executives regarded Open Source as the second coming of Bolshevism, and they weren't shy about sharing their views.

In any case, the outside world tends to see this difference of opinion as a case of corporate schizophrenia. Microsoft divides its time between courting the open-source community and paying an army of lawyers to figure out how best to cook Linus Torvalds' penguin.

Bear all of this in mind while I point you towards the latest installment in this screwy saga: A Microsoft press release in which the company promises to treat software interoperability as more than just fodder for, umm, Microsoft press releases:

Microsoft Corp. today announced a set of broad-reaching changes to its technology and business practices to increase the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for developers, partners, customers and competitors.

Specifically, Microsoft is implementing four new interoperability principles and corresponding actions across its high-volume business products: (1) ensuring open connections; (2) promoting data portability; (3) enhancing support for industry standards; and (4) fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities

Microsoft PR announcements are a dime a dozen, of course, and a press release announcing "Strategic Changes in Technology and Business Practices to Expand Interoperability" could normally substitute for general anesthesia in abdominal surgery. But there are good reasons to take a closer look at this particular press release.

For starters, even Steve Ballmer takes a puff on the peace pipe this time around:

These steps represent an important step and significant change in how we share information about our products and technologies, said Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer. For the past 33 years, we have shared a lot of information with hundreds of thousands of partners around the world and helped build the industry, but todays announcement represents a significant expansion toward even greater transparency. Our goal is to promote greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for customers and developers throughout the industry by making our products more open and by sharing even more information about our technologies.

Never mind that Ballmer's canned quote sounds like it was obtained under torture -- and even then, he doesn't actually have to say the words "open source."

Then there's this from Ray Ozzie:

According to Ray Ozzie, Microsoft chief software architect, the companys announcement reflects the significance that individuals and businesses place upon the ease of information-sharing. As heterogeneity is the norm within enterprise architectures, interoperability across applications and services has become a key requirement.

Customers need all their vendors, including and especially Microsoft, to deliver software and services that are flexible enough such that any developer can use their open interfaces and data to effectively integrate applications or to compose entirely new solutions, said Ozzie. By increasing the openness of our products, we will provide developers additional opportunity to innovate and deliver value for customers.

Translation: If you love your customers -- or, at least, if you love your customers' money -- set them free. Microsoft's business customers, large and small, no longer need to be sold on the benefits of mix-and-match, multi-vendor software stacks. Many companies will continue to rely heavily upon Microsoft products, and it is safe to say that a genuine commitment to interoperability will create some lucrative new competitive opportunities for the company.

Now, however, none of those opportunities involve shooting fish in a barrel: Gone forever are the days when Redmond could promote the "interoperability" benefits of its own integrated software stacks by breaking its competitors' products.

It is no coincidence, by the way, that Microsoft is still smarting from the spanking EU antitrust regulators dished out when they forced the company to hand over documentation on its networking protocols to third-party developers -- including the development team for the open-source Samba project.

Finally, does this announcement really have much to do with open-source software? Absolutely. This has always been a synergistic relationship: Open-source software plays a key role in the process of establishing standards and in pressuring proprietary software vendors to adopt these standards. And standards-based interop, once it establishes itself in a software market niche, often lowers the barriers to entry for new competitors -- including more open-source products.

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