Home & Office

Microsoft IP Chief's new tell-all doesn't tell all that much

I haven't read the full 186 pages of Burning The Ships -- a book about IP licensing by Microsoft VP Marshall Phelps -- yet. But what I've skimmed so far makes me feel like I'm reading yet another Microsoft white paper or press release, not any kind of a behind-the-scenes tell-all.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Let me start this post with a caveat or two. I published my first (and maybe last) book last year. It was an unauthorized account of what might be next for Microsoft after Chairman Bill Gates relinquished his day-to-day duties at the company. I know what it's like to do a book about a company without the company's cooperation, and it's not easy.

That brings me to Burning the Ships (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). The authors -- Microsoft IP chief Marshall Phelps and journalist/IP consultant (and former Microsoft employee) David Kline -- are promoting the book as an "unauthorized" look at the role of intellectual property on the "transformation of Microsoft."

While Microsoft may not have directly funded this book, it gave the authors access to its execs -- everyone from Gates to Senior VP and General Counsel Brad Smith, to a number of Microsoft public-relations folks. Phelps still works at Microsoft as Corporate Vice President for IP Policy. So calling this book "unauthorized" is quite a stretch.

(Meanwhile, there are a number of characters whose omission from this book are surprising. Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie -- who is widely seen as leading Microsoft's charge toward working more cooperatively with the open-source community -- is not mentioned at all. Nor is Sam Ramji, Microsoft's Director of Platform Strategy -- Microsoft's lead in-the-trenches open-source negotiator.)

If you want more details of the long career of Phelps, who was instrumental in creating IBM's patent war chest, there's plenty (32-plus pages worth) here. Phelps and Kline do provide some behind-the-scenes views of what led up to Microsoft patent agreements with Novell, Toshiba and other companies. (News.com's Ina Fried has provided a synopsis of the Novell background and Toshiba information from the book.) The authors even offer some background about Red Hat, which decided after a year and a half of talks, against signing any kind of patent protection deal with Microsoft. But no further details are provided by the authors as to what scuttled those Microsoft-Red Hat negotiations.

The authors portray Phelps' role at Microsoft as "infinitely more challenging than simply making money from IP" -- instead, helping "reform Microsoft's 'man the barricades' culture, encourage the company to abandon its fortress mentality around its technology and share it with others for mutual benefit."

I'd argue Phelps saw the same opportunity for Microsoft as he saw when he was at IBM. Licensing IP is big business and can help stave off lawsuits, saving companies multi-millions.

As Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has made clear repeatedly, Microsoft is a proprietary software vendor that currently makes and plans to make its money by selling software and services. To Ballmer, "sharing technology" means requiring others to license its patents. The more than 500 "collaboration deals" Microsoft has forged with other companies isn't evidence that Microsoft is tearing down the fortress walls. I'd argue it's simply Microsoft driving hard bargains whose terms remain covered by non-disclosure agreements.

That said, there is nothing wrong with Microsoft sticking to its closed-source, capitalist guns. In cases where Microsoft has reached out to the open-source community, it has done so in a "we'll scratch your back if you scratch ours" way.

I haven't read the full 186 pages of The Ships yet. But what I've skimmed so far makes me feel like I'm reading yet another Microsoft white paper or press release, not any kind of a behind-the-scenes tell-all. I'd be interested in hearing how some of the OEMs and other licensees of Microsoft's patents feel about the way the authors characterize the IP licensing deals mentioned in the book....

Editorial standards