Will Bill Gates' departure usher in open source friendly era at Microsoft?

Will Microsoft become more open to open source with the departure of Bill Gates?It’s a tough call.
Written by Paula Rooney, Contributor on

Will Microsoft become more open to open source with the departure of Bill Gates?

It’s a tough call. Observers from both the open and closed source worlds say the exit of Microsoft’s longtime leader won’t usher in a GPL era at the company but it will likely accelerate what is already a changing attitude in Redmond.

“We already see quite a different approach to dealing with OSS and OSS companies from Sam Ramji's group [which is] doing a great job in establishing dialog,” said Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange and a former marketing exec at SUSE Linux. “With Gates' departure, the only mammoth remaining is Ballmer. With him away in a near future, Microsoft will definitely open up. They have to.”

Gates' exit will help acceptance of open source, another observer said.

“For much of Microsoft’s history, its primary strategic initiative has been Windows everywhere.  Bill Gates was the primary architect of this and it has served the company well in reaching the $50 billion revenue mark. To get from $50 to $100 billion, however, they will clearly need to embrace the non-Windows world,” said Barry Crist, CEO, Likewise Software. “I suspect this will be easier for Microsoft to accomplish without Gates. We see substantive signs of this happening already.”

One open source backer hints that Gates' early departure from Microsoft signals the beginning of the end for proprietary software.

“Bill Gates figured out how to harvest from software licensing early on in the game, and built the biggest software company on the planet from it. [But] selling software licenses has become a triviality," said Juergen Geck, CTO of Openxchange, which competes against Microsoft Exchange.

No one expects Microsoft to open source any of its crown jewels but even Microsoft programmers expects to see more openness and source code releases in the post Gates era.

“I have a strong feeling that Microsoft will consider anew all their options with regard to open source strategy and the open source community.  I think that Microsoft will remain much like it is now [in that] it will continue to release commercial software and take intellectual property rights very seriously.  But I do think you’ll see more open source/shared source/community projects on CodePlex, on the model of the ASP.NET AJAX Control Toolkit, “ said Andrew Brust, chief of new technology at TwentySix, a longtime Microsoft partner and developer in New York. “I think you’ll see Microsoft engage more closely with open source companies, interest groups and enthusiasts, both within the .NET world, and outside of the Microsoft universe.” Brust said a “good harbinger of this is Moonlight, the Novell-sponsored, open source, Linux-based implementation of Silverlight, and the fact that Microsoft worked with that team to help them get the product built. “Scott Guthrie is largely responsible, as far as I can tell, for this kind of constructive engagement with the open source world, and I think his influence will grow.”

One exec at the Linux Foundation can't predict what Microsoft's new top brass will do but open source will continue to put enormous pressure on the company’s margins and closed source ways.

"That depends on Ballmer and Ozzie and the results of what I imagine are some interesting debates internally. There is no doubt that Microsoft has no choice but to acknowledge that the closed development model for building software doesn't work any more," said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. "The future of cloud computing and Web 2.0 application development will be built on Linux and open source."

Others say Gates will continue to influence the company as its chairman of the board and largest shareholder, and impose his vision on strategic decisions.

“Bill Gates has planned his departure well and today Microsoft is led by so many great leaders. He is a powerful symbol and an icon that we all will miss. But being Chairman is also an important position in Microsoft so he will still oversee long term strategy,” said Per Werngren, president of IDE, of Stockholm, Sweden and president of the Internal Association of Microsoft Certified Partners.

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