What Ballmer really thinks about open source

Tricky johnny, truth. This whole journalism business revolves around it, but sometimes it slips through the net like an eel through mud.

Tricky johnny, truth. This whole journalism business revolves around it, but sometimes it slips through the net like an eel through mud.

Take Steven Ballmer's latest pronouncements, currently viewable for your delight in an interview for the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

That there is truth in it, is undeniable. He admits that Microsoft shafted its partners over PlaysForSure - but, in a move familiar to those in unsatisfactory partnerships the world over, seeks to put some of the blame on the shaftee: "Some of our partners will say 'This wasn't partner-friendly.' But having our partners only have 20% of a market share between them is also not very partner-friendly. ...partners are your partners because they make money with you, they succeed with you. And if you don't succeed, eventually you don't have any partners."

We could dissect that twenty ways till Tuesday, but it has the ring of something that Ballmer truly believes. And any bets on how long it will be before Zune gets above 20 percent of its market?

The really interesting part of the interview comes when Ballmer starts talking about open source:

"Will open source do a better job than a proprietary software company -- any software company?" asks Ballmer. "It's an interesting question -- not just for us, but for anybody who is interested in business. The question is, can paid, commercial people do a better job than unpaid volunteers? The answer, I think, will be yes, but we're going to have to push ourselves."

As seekers after the slippery eel of truth, ask yourself this: is Ballmer deliberately muddying the waters by conflating open source with unpaid volunteers, or does he really believe that to the case? All that money IBM, Sun and Novell is investing in open source - where does he think it goes?

If he's telling his version of the truth (and that's all we can ever hope for, philosophy fans), then MIcrosoft has a badly broken model of what open source is and will never be able to compete well. And if he's deliberately fibbing - ladies and gentlemen of the jury, only you can decide.

The irony is, of course, that Windows is kept afloat on a sea of millions of unpaid volunteers. We may not be writing the code -- although there's plenty of open source for Windows - but by George we put out on support.

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