Could Microsoft take a community lesson from Sun?

Microsoft talks a lot about community and wanting to foster/tap into it. But there really is no single, cohesive "Microsoft community," akin to the Linux community. Sun has some new ideas (the crux of which seems to be something code-named 'Project Indiana") about how it can tap into the power of the Linux community. Could Microsoft apply those lessons to its own community-development work?

Microsoft talks a lot about community and wanting to foster/tap into it. But there really is no single, cohesive "Microsoft community," akin to the Linux community.

The reasons for this are many and varied. A dominant market player-- vs. an up-and-coming underdog -- seems to inspire less (vocal) customer/developer loyalty and boosterism. When the vendor whose technology you are using doesn't require your participation to create/advance its products, you tend to feel less personally vested in that vendor. Even though Microsoft and its products have helped a number of resellers, software vendors, peripheral makers, consultants and programmers carve out a living for themselves, most of these folks seem to consider Microsoft a job, not an adventure.

Linux Foundation's Ian Murdock

Attending JavaOne and the Sun-sponsored CommunityOne Day in San Francisco this week got me thinking a lot about what makes a community. And having a chance to chat with Debian founder and now-Sun-employee Ian Murdock shed even more light on how communities can be made and grown.

Sun's Chief Operating Systems Officer Murdock is working on a still-undisclosed project code-named "Indiana." (Indiana is not Sun's newly unveiled JavaFX platform; I asked and Murdock said no.)

Murdock says that Sun will soon unveil its Indiana vision. Without actually spelling it out, Murdock explained the goals of the Indiana project.

"Linux and Solaris are competing products, but they are also very similar. Really the only thing that's different between the two is the kernel," Murdock said during an interview at JavaOne on May 8.

"So how do we make Solaris more appealing to the Linux developer community? We want to enable developers to develop on Solaris and deploy on Linux Solaris," Murdock said. (My mistake; Murdock said Solaris.)

While developers can do this with Sun's NetBeans today, there are still a number of niggling differences that might discourage traditional Linux developers from using Sun systems and tools to program, Murdock said.

"Linux developers see an unfamiliar environment, a different packaging system" and the like, Murdock said. And different Linux distributions have different platform stories, he adds. "But as Solaris starts looking more like Linux, it can be a better Linux (than Linux) with the addition of some sexy features, like DTrace, a dynamic tracing framework for Solaris.

Murdock noted that while Solaris has a lot of features its users consider cool and exciting, its developer community is much smaller and less vested in Solaris than is the Linux community is in Linux. Sun understands that it needs to join the Linux community, not beat the Linux community, in order to grow its customer/developer base.

Could a similar model work for a closed-source vendor? Microsoft does have an open-source lab and just recently launched a single portal venue on SourceForge to show off the company's forays and partnerships designed to get open-source software to run on and be deployed on Windows….

In spite of the work of many Softies who are committed to community principles, I can't help but feel like Microsoft still sees open-source software's gain as Redmond's loss. Deals like the Microsoft-Novell one -- in spite of Microsoft's ongoing press-release campaign to tout examples of customers who say they are benefiting from the Novell-Microsoft deal -- did Microsoft more harm than good, in terms of building new relationships with the open-source community.

(When I asked Murdock about the Microsoft-Novell deal, he acknowledged that "in open-source software, Microsoft is not the most trusted vendor in the world." He added that his response was polite, as he is from Indiana.)

So what else could Microsoft do to expand and engage further its developer and customer communities? Could/should Microsoft try to make Visual Studio running on Windows more appealing to Linux developers and deployers? Port Microsoft Office or SQL Server to Linux?

Or should the Redmondians just accept that there will never be a Slashdot for Windows and just stay the course -- without a huge group of cheerleaders egging the company on?


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