Microsoft’s Open Source Dilemma and Diplomacy

It would not be too far fetched to talk about some of Microsoft’s PR talk related to Open Source as driven by a burned lands strategy in the past years.

Let’s leave the past behind. Let’s assume that Microsoft is seriously concerned about interoperability and openness. Let’s assume they are trying to understand how the Open Source business works and want to engage with Open Source companies in a friendly manner. Let’s not discuss whether Microsoft opens their APIs due to a self-decided business strategy or whether the EU made them make the decision.

Let’s give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt.

To understand the position Microsoft is in from a marketing communications perspective, take a look at the following analogy: Imagine a country that invaded a foreign land and actually burned the lands to defeat its inhabitants, but without military success. The invaded country was able to defend itself and won the war. Imagine business men of the aggressor country coming back one year after the war trying to establish business relationships.

As a citizen of the invaded country – would you trust those business men?

I can imagine that those Microsoft employees who by their corporate role and conviction sincerely want to establish mutually beneficial relationships with Open Source companies and communities face mistrust. They are often being accused of the “old crimes” and are being seen as the enemy.

As of today, Microsoft is in the middle of constant crisis management with Open Source. To get out of it, it seems Microsoft is rightly entering an era of diplomacy and friendly (naturally somewhat unclear) statements which are supposed to help grow trust between Microsoft and the Open Source community. This effort of small and large steps will have to balance naysayers as well as yaysayers to produce realistic results. Hence, it will be important for Microsoft to stay focused and committed.

While at the Microsoft Open Source ISV Forum and OSBC, one could witness Microsoft’s diplomacy at work:

  • “Open Source is here to stay”, said Sam Ramji at the OSS ISV forum and Brad Smith mentioned during his keynote at OSBC: “We at Microsoft appreciate the important role that Open Source plays.”
  • During his OSBC keynote, Brad Smith eloquently apologized for Bill Gates and Steve Balmer once calling Open Source communism and cancer: “Ultimately, people are not caricatures. They get up in the morning. They get smarter. The industry evolves. And you want that. You don’t want people to have to live with the caricatures and stay with those caricatures.”

Even to Microsoft, Open Source has proven to be a viable and lucrative business – why else would they partner with Open Source vendors? From there, it is just one more step for Microsoft to adopt Open Source business strategies themselves for relevant products or parts of them.

With Microsoft being a company relying on partners for 96% of its revenues, it will be highly important to drive innovation by building its partner network not only on top of commercial interests and proprietary software, but also on merit and fame for great software development achievements – a huge benefit of Open Source communities.

Microsoft needs to leave behind the scorched earth policies that clearly don’t work. Microsoft’s top executives need to re-state and re-assure that they want to live in peaceful coexistence and cooperation with Open Source. Most of all, Microsoft will have to accept that patent gimmicks won’t get them anywhere in their quest to play nicely with the Open Source community.

Otherwise, Microsoft will continue to cripple itself when it comes to additional strategic business options available with Open Source – not being able to apply OSS business strategies to some of their own products or growing cooperation with OSS vendors and projects. The intended acquisition of Yahoo! will be ill-fated without Microsoft successfully building a good relationship with the Open Source community, given that prominent community members such as PHP’s Rasmus Lerdorf are key to Yahoo!’s success.

The goal for Microsoft is to get past the point where they rely on the Open Source community giving them the benefit of the doubt and instead leverage the potentials of Open Source to Microsoft’s own advantage based on trustful relationships with the cathedrals and the bazaars.

About Sandro Groganz

Sandro Groganz is an expert in the field of marketing open-source products. He co-founded Age of Peers, a global communications agency for organizations in Open Source. He served as Head of Marketing at Magnolia, creator of the open web content management system Magnolia CMS, Vice President of Marketing at Mindquarry, an open source startup financed by Hasso Plattner Ventures, and Vice President of Communication at eZ Systems, the creator of the open source content management system eZ Publish.

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