Microsoft's Groove move makes solid sense

Microsoft's acquisition of Groove Networks is good news for both companies, promising for users and a wake-up call for the open source industry

Microsoft's purchase of Groove Networks, software development team and its transferral of CEO Ray Ozzie to a CTO role within Microsoft, shows that the company is still capable of astute manoeuvres. Ozzie, best known as the inventor of Lotus Notes, has built an innovative and distinctive product that may be just a little too different for comfort. Microsoft's backing will ease fears while injecting some much-needed pizzazz into the Office line-up, which is currently getting ever flabbier as it waits for Longhorn to give it somewhere new to go.

Making the deal work needs more than a cheque and a new email address for Ozzie, though. Microsoft has a history of buying companies for their technology and staff, only for both to fade from view. Company insiders blame cultural and political battles for this, as well as the magnitude of the task of innovating within a management-heavy framework dedicated to perpetuating monolithic compatibility with the largest user base on the planet. Ozzie's position as one of three chief technical officers both underlines this and shows how serious Gates is about trying to change it. On the one hand, three chiefs is two too many: on the other, that might be the price Ozzie needed to extract in order to protect his team and ensure top-level patronage.

Politics aside, Microsoft is wise to concentrate on groupware. Open source is very vulnerable here, as even its staunchest supporters agree. Stuart Cohen, CEO of OSDL, told us earlier this week that "Open source still lacks good groupware and calendaring. I wish there was some but there isn't. Linux is great for many types of user, but it is not ready for the mobile professional yet." Redmond is already good at collaborative working, and users can only benefit from further aggressive developments from people with as good a track record as Ozzie. Open source is not out of the running — Ozzie's old Lotus buddy, Mitch Kapor, is hard at work with the OSAF's own Chandler groupware project — but it's lagging.

There are other benefits, even for those who regard all Microsoft's moves with suspicion. Groove is built on peer-to-peer principles, technology that meshes perfectly with our connected world of very powerful clients. It's also technology that's booked for the fight of its life later this month, when the US Supreme Court hears MGM versus Grokster — where the IT industry will argue that P2P should be left to grow against the entertainment world's pressure for powerful controls in the name of copyright. Solid corporate P2P applications can only underline the importance of letting people change the world without asking permission first.

Microsoft getting its Groove onboard will mean better products and more productive people. That's worth sharing.