Is Microsoft's open systems promise reliable?

I caught this article the other day on InfoWeek, where Nancy Gohring discussed Microsoft's new-ish open systems policy. As noted in the article, it's easy to view Microsoft's new stance with a certain amount of skepticism:But Microsoft may have a way to go to placate a market that often views the software giant as a bully not to be trusted.

I caught this article the other day on InfoWeek, where Nancy Gohring discussed Microsoft's new-ish open systems policy. As noted in the article, it's easy to view Microsoft's new stance with a certain amount of skepticism:

But Microsoft may have a way to go to placate a market that often views the software giant as a bully not to be trusted. The fact that the market tends to scrutinize every move that Microsoft makes, looking for ulterior motives, may make it even harder for the company to overcome market skepticism.

...

...it wasn't hard to conclude that "everything they talked about in that pledge was a direct response to the E.U.," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. About a week after revealing its interoperability principles, Microsoft was fined $1.3 billion by the E.U. Its new pledge then seemed even more obviously a way for it to try to avoid such heavy fines in the future, Rosoff said.

Skepticism, in this case, is warranted, as certainty (or some approximation of it) only comes with a track record proving that Microsoft's new approach is long-lasting. However, wondering whether a change in strategy has staying power is one thing. Saying that the new policy only exists due to negative antitrust rulings, as if Microsoft executives scrambled in smoky rooms to emerge with a new "open systems" strategy paper the ink on which was still warm from the laser printer on which it was printed, is a different thing entirely.

I think its valid to say that it is less likely that Microsoft would have been making as many noises about open systems if not for negative judgements by the EC combined with a track record of antitrust difficulties in other jurisdictions. Note the use of the term "less."  It's a simple fact (in my opinion) that in 2008, open systems are obligatory. You can't gain much market traction, or create momentum behind a new technology, if you've created an environment that is closed to all but your own developers...or for that matter, your own platform.

That reality is understood by lots of people across Microsoft. Influential people such as Sam Ramji and Ray Ozzie get that. They would likely believe those things irrespective of whether or not regulators in the European Union made clear their desire that Microsoft change its business practices.

Saying what Microsoft as a company believes from a technology strategy standpoint is a bit like saying what Americans believe with respect to their choice of the next president. There's a lot of variety in a company with 80,000+ employees.

Negative judgements, in other words, don't CREATE an awareness of modern IT realities. They do, however, give those who are aware of those realities, and who have been thinking about how to deal with them for a very long time, more political power to make that awareness shape corporate strategy.

Think of strategy at a company like Microsoft as a bit like sailing through a sea filled with icebergs. One one day, some of the icebergs might lie beneath the surface of the water, while others rise above the surface and are obvious to everyone on the ship. On another day, those same icebergs lie below the surface, replaced by new ones that, on previous days, were completely submerged.

That's how Microsoft strategic policy appears to me, though to be fair, I doubt that is unique to Microsoft. Politics matters even at smaller companies. Look at how much changed once Steve Jobs returned to the helm at Apple. Clearly, there were forces at Apple who believed in a different approach to the market, and once Jobs was gone, they were free to make that approach a reality. Jobs had the political power to change things, a power which derived from his unique status as a founder.

Luckily for Apple fans around the world, Steve Jobs used that power to back useful things, such as elegantly designed hardware, and not a chain of Apple-branded hamburger restaurants.

Okay, that was weird.