Microsoft needs some open-source fairy dust

Novell, Sun, IBM and HP have all managed to appropriate some of the positive kudos generated by the open-source community, leaving Microsoft looking cold and out of touch

I thought I had a pretty good handle on the differences between the open-source community and the traditional proprietary approach to software development. But watching a Microsoft spokesperson defend his company and its whole approach to business in front of a room full of Linux zealots last week helped crystallise the gulf between the two camps -- not just in business strategy but in fundamental philosophy and political bent.

First off, Microsoft deserves some credit for actually attending the panel debate and addressing a pretty tough crowd -- the Redmond gang would be hard pushed to find a less sympathetic audience than the faithful filling the hallowed halls of Linux Expo at London's Olympia.

Deciding on the motivation of the Microsoft man,  national systems engineer Bradley Tipp, for turning up depends on your degree of cynicism. Hopefully, it was out of genuine belief in his company's technology and the chance for some heart-felt evangelising to correct the misguided picture that most Linux converts have of Microsoft. Or, from the other end of the cynicism scale, his motivation was all about damage limitation and pulling back any IT managers in the audience who might be considering defecting to open source.

Theorising about motivation might seem a bit "out there" but actually it's key to the whole difficulty that Microsoft is having with the open-source crowd -- they own the moral high-ground 100 percent. Microsoft, on the other hand, is still operating like an 80s company. Being aggressive and pragmatic got them a long way when everyone else was playing by the same rules but open-source advocates such as Red Hat, Suse, and Samba have moved the goalposts. Marching under the banners of sharing and cooperation, they have chosen not to fight Microsoft at its hard-nosed business game. While they still adhere to capitalist principles -- they might have socialist tendencies but they're not communists -- they are also promoting the idea that there is more to life than cash: there is the love of coding, job satisfaction, and the fulfilment of being part of a community; a society.

 

The Microsoft spokesperson argued his corner very effectively -- espousing the conservative business mantra that typified the 80s and early 90s -- the only problem is this is 2004. His arguments were cogent but not forceful enough to displace the likes of Samba and Red Hat from the moral high-ground they have dug themselves into. Whether their management really believes in the ideals that they espouse doesn't actually matter, as long as they behave as if they do. If the Sunday supplement surveys are to be believed and the 21st century population is searching for more than financial gain, then these companies are tapping into the zeitgeist much more effectively than Microsoft.

The most telling point of the debate was when a rambling question was asked from the audience about how the various organisations were going to work together to ensure that Linux continued to be a unified platform and didn't fragment in the same way Unix did. Cue lots of platitudes from Red Hat, Sun and Novell about working together for the common good, which went down very well with the crowd, filling the room with a socialist fairy dust.

Microsoft's man, on the other hand, was still doing his Gordon Gecko everyone-is-out-to-get-you, only-the-paranoid-survive shtick. He made the telling comment that cooperating on software was fundamentally flawed as it allowed for "parasites" to utilise code developed by other members of the community. These parasitical organisations, he argued, were the reason why the open-source community shouldn't exist; why share information with anyone else if they weren't going to help you back?

If you substitute 'dole-scroungers' for parasitical software companies and 'society' for the open-source community, then you have pretty much got a slice of pure Thatcherism -- which just seems out of date and out of touch now. This was obviously only one Microsoft employee, put in quite a difficult position, but he was supposedly representing the whole of the Redmond campus.

Now, I am not saying that the whole software industry has become some happy-clappy social club with everyone working for the joy of a job well-done but Microsoft could do with appropriating some positive kudos from the open-source community in the same way that their competitors have.

Novell, Sun and HP have all played the pragmatic, hard-nosed game alongside Microsoft but recently they've managed to build in some of the good vibes too, giving them the best of both worlds. Even the buttoned-down IBM has managed to acquire some sparkle through its association with Linux, and if they can do it then why not Microsoft? Redmond is obviously competing with Linux to a certain degree but Sun has suffered at the hands of the open-source OS to a much greater extent and still decided to join  'em rather than beat 'em.

It's time for Microsoft to wake-up and realise that the rules have changed and that conservatism and pragmatism aren't enough anymore. They need to plug back into the geek heritage, which they cast off in the early 90s to appeal to the business community, or risk being perceived as out of touch -- potentially fatal for a company supposedly built on innovation and technical leadership.

For the full transcript of the debate click here.