Microsoft WebsiteSpark tries to hit open source, mostly misses

Company launches program to attract Web developers, but it's going to need more than a low initial price tag to beat open source in Web development.

Arguably Microsoft's biggest threat is its irrelevance to Web developers. Though the company dominates personal computing and is a major force in enterprise computing, it remains a distant also-ran to LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Python/Perl) development for the growing Web ecosystem. On Thursday Microsoft announced its WebsiteSpark program to build inroads with the Web crowd, but the program is unlikely to make a serious dent on LAMP's dominance.

The reason? There are some big strings attached.

Microsoft has gone after Web developers before, but products like Expressions haven't made much headway with Web developers, as The Seattle Times reports.

WebsiteSpark, following on the heels of successful student (DreamSpark) and start-up (BizSpark) technology seeding programs, will likely make more of a dent. Free, high-quality tools to Web developers, as TechCrunch suggests, are going to be a big win.

But it's not going to be enough.

The problem isn't one of cost. At least, not primarily. WebsiteSpark has that nailed. The program gives thousands of dollars of technology away for just $100 at the end of three years, and then two options ($999 per year for everything or a scaled down $199 per year option) that aren't much more expensive.

But this overlooks the larger issue: Microsoft constrains who can join the program (start-ups with fewer than 10 employees) and meters their growth after the three years. Open-source alternatives do neither.

No upfront cost...but what about the future?

The first constraint isn't a big deal. Many aspiring Googles have fewer than 10 employees, and will continue to be small through their first few years.

The second, however, is the killer. At the end of the three years, Microsoft doesn't require WebsiteSpark participants to buy anything, but if the start-up is successful, it faces big bills as it scales out its Microsoft technology. This wouldn't be a big problem if there were no free alternatives that offer equal or better performance. But there are.

Microsoft tries to spin the open-source LAMP alternative as disjointed, and further argues it is a more expensive development path, and even that Microsoft offers better Web performance than LAMP-based development.

But this isn't the way the Facebooks of the world see it. They view the open-source LAMP stack as the proven, scalable winner in Web development. Microsoft can't match that with a price tag.

LAMP gives Web developers control over their destiny, both in terms of source code (they can finely tune LAMP to fit their needs) and in terms of cost (they need not pay anyone to scale out). They may choose to pay someone like Red Hat or MySQL for a support subscription, but at scale, companies like Google simply don't. They have the expertise in-house to support themselves.

But that's at scale. The problem remains, however, for Microsoft, that many of those sub-10-employee shops are dreaming of being Google, not being a mom-and-pop shop forever. So, if they're seeing thousands of servers in their future, tying themselves to the Microsoft stack, with all the license fees associated with it, is going to look like a poor decision.

Most companies will fail. Most of the rest will remain small. Rationally, most of these small start-ups, then, should be content to get Microsoft's technology for a song, assuming they don't care about the flexibility that comes from LAMP.

The other side is that with open source--which many of these Web developers will have picked up while at school or just on their own--there are no barriers to how the developer wants to use the software. Ultimately, Microsoft's WebsiteSpark requires Web developers to color within the lines that Microsoft dictates. That may be well and good for a big population of developers, but it's not the path that Digg, Google, Facebook, etc., have taken.

Microsoft is huge in enterprise computing, in part because it lowers the cost and complexity of development for enterprises of any size. But the Web is built on open source. Microsoft is playing catch-up in this market, and it's simply not going to be enough to wave great tools in front of developers for a low fee.

Microsoft isn't alone in making such a pitch. Oracle, for its part, is touting the development of OraTweet, a Twitter clone built with Oracle Application Express Web development platform. But the reality is that enterprise ISVs like Oracle and Microsoft are largely invisible in Web development.

This is one reason Oracle is interested in picking up MySQL, the leading Web database. MySQL is almost entirely complementary, not competitive, to Oracle's enterprise-focused database.

Microsoft, however, has no such plans to buy its way into the open-source development community, which means it must rely on programs like WebsiteSpark to catch up. It's a start-up, but it's not enough.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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