The end of the era at Microsoft can't come fast enough
With the changing of the guard, Microsoft has an opportunity to
rethink its attitudes toward open source
By Neil McAllister
June 26, 2006
The press is abuzz with speculation about Bill Gates' "impending"
departure from Microsoft, the company he founded. As /InfoWorld/ Editor
in Chief Steve Fox rightly points out
other company could announce executive turnover in two years' time and
have it called news. What lends gravitas to this nonevent, however, is
an idea that's been growing within the industry and that's beginning to
find its voice: It's time for change*.*
Gone are the days of skyrocketing stock prices at Microsoft. The grand
vision of the company's next-generation OS has proved too ambitious,
with Windows Vista missing deadline after deadline. Customer frustration
with security flaws and lock-in tactics is growing. Microsoft's attempts
at software as a service have been largely stillborn. And throughout it
all, Microsoft executives maintain that the biggest threat is ... a
search engine company?
Plainly, the real problem is that the old ideas just aren't working.
Microsoft has been phenomenally successful as a software company, but as
the years have gone by, it has increasingly struggled to adapt to
change. The Internet changed computing in fundamental ways, yet by Bill
Gates' own admission Microsoft was slow to react.
Now the software business itself is changing, and central to that change
is open source. Yet Microsoft has remained heavily entrenched in its
software business model: selling shrink-wrapped software through the VAR
channel. Other companies, such as IBM
have adapted to different models. Open source isn't a threat to them;
rather, they embrace it. In a sense, the fact that Microsoft feels so
threatened by open source exposes its vulnerability. The company has
shown every sign of stumbling again. Could a change in leadership bring
it to surer footing?
In an interview with eWeek
<http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1975848,00.asp>, Bob Muglia,
senior vice president of Microsoft's servers and tools business, seemed
to suggest Microsoft's traditional animosity to open source might be
cooling. "We are open to ways of working with the open source community
broadly, and even in the GPL [General Public License] space we are
trying to find ways in which we can build bridges to GPL," he said.
However, he added, "The bridge has to be carefully constructed."
Open source developers typically scoff at such statements. If Microsoft
wants to build bridges to open source, why not open its protocols? Why
not support public standards, such as OpenDocument
Why not comply with antitrust judgments, both here
and in Europe
Why not -- you know -- build bridges?
But behind the scenes there's further evidence that a change in thinking
may be under way at Microsoft. The abrupt departure of Martin Taylor
is one example. You might not know Taylor's name, but you surely
remember Microsoft's notorious "Get the Facts" campaign, which he led.
The "facts" in question were a series of Microsoft-sponsored studies and
papers that amounted to a smear campaign against Linux, focusing on
purported hidden costs and support nightmares.
Negative attack ads have never been a responsible way to run a political
campaign, let alone a software business. If Taylor's departure indicates
Microsoft is ready to put its "Get the Facts" tactics behind it, it will
be welcome news. Because regardless of what Linux might be doing,
Microsoft needs to get its own house in order: shore up its software
development processes, deliver product on schedule, and figure out how
to compete effectively in a software market that's radically different
from the one it helped pioneer two decades ago.
The wild card in this deck is the new kid on the block: Gates' heir
apparent, Ray Ozzie. The creator of Lotus Notes and Groove, Ozzie isn't
an open source guy, but he does know software and his specialty is
collaboration. When he takes over Gates' role as chief software
architect two years from now, might Ozzie have vision enough to
transition Microsoft toward a more collaborative, inclusive style of
Let's hope so. A Microsoft that can learn to play fair, be more
transparent, and embrace the radical changes taking place in the way
enterprises procure, develop, and deploy software could be a powerful
boon for the industry. But I'm not holding my breath. A radical change
such as that won't happen overnight. In fact, at two years to go and
counting before it can even begin, we're in for a long wait.
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