Microsoft bigs up open source, then stuffs it under the sofa

Big Blue got it right, why can't Redmond?


Open ... and Shut Microsoft's new Open Technologies subsidiary may be many things, but one thing it's not is "further demonstration of Microsoft’s long-term commitment to interoperability, greater openness, and to working with open source communities", as Microsoft has positioned it.

While it's true that Microsoft's self-interest has increasingly aligned with open source and open standards like HTML5 over the years, it's not true that isolating its open technology efforts will somehow help the software giant engage more in this world. If anything, openness will increasingly be "what our subsidiary does" for Microsofties still hoping to win a 21st-century battle using a 20th-century strategy.

When I tweeted as much, Microsoft's Peter Galli was quick to email me to suggest I hadn't understood; that "open source does, and will continue to, permeate Microsoft". I am sure Galli and the rest of the open-source crowd at Microsoft sincerely believe this, but it's hard to see how Microsoft can hope to embrace open source and other open technologies while sidelining them to a subsidiary.

When IBM, which has more patents and copyrighted code than Microsoft and even more to lose from the "taint" of open-source licensing, wanted to get more involved in open source, it didn't create a subsidiary to that effect. It actually made open source an integral part of how all of its businesses operate, even those focused on proprietary software licensing.

IBM, like other companies, did set up an open-source group within the company to help laggards in the company embrace open source. But even this group was eventually disbanded as openness came to so thoroughly permeate the company that having a specific group tasked with encouraging openness no longer made sense.  Bob Sutor, who had led the group, went on to do other things within IBM while the company went on to make ever-greater investments in open source.

This is how to encourage openness at Microsoft. Not by making a sideshow of it, but by putting openness front and center in how the company builds, consumes, and sells software.

That's not to suggest there aren't good reasons for Microsoft to take this approach to open technologies. As OSI board member Simon Phipps remarks: "The new Microsoft Open Technologies, Inc. provides an ideal firewall to protect Microsoft from the risks it has been alleging exist in open source and open standards."  This, in turn, lets Microsoft "respond to the inevitability of open source in their market without constant push-back from cautious and reactionary corporate process."

OK. So Microsoft needs a firewall to protect it from open source. But how does this encourage the company to act like every other company in the industry and stop acting like open source is a cancer to be forced into remission? No other company has done this, including peers that have as much or more to lose from open source and open standards as Microsoft has.

Microsoft is "thinking different" here, and it's hard to see how it's a good thing.

It's particularly troubling since the company seemed to be making so many positive strides. This announcement wasn't accompanied by all of Microsoft's old ill-feeling toward open source, but it seems to be animated by the same mistrust. It's unfortunate and a big step backward. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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