Microsoft's mixed-up open-source TCO messaging makes perfect sense

Microsoft wants to have it both ways on its open-source TCO study, but that's not as incoherent as it first seems.

Old Microsoft, meet new Microsoft. Best sit down, talk, and work out your story(ies) on open source and its TCO.

Mary Jo Foley points out that Microsoft has resurrected an old TCO study (December 2007), put some varnish on it, and is trotting it out like it's news. Why? Well, you can guess, as Mary Jo does:

So why is Microsoft touting it today? Perhaps due to the recession and desire by companies to find ways to cut costs by using more free software? Or maybe to counteract the press around a former Microsoft developer's new book celebrating the joys of open-source software? Or maybe it's just one more attempt by the Softies to bang the OOXML drum, given a fleeting reference in today's press release to a need to standardize around a single document format?

As Mary Jo goes on to note, Microsoft is within its rights to compete by fair means or foul, so long as it stays within the law. But I have to wonder why Microsoft bothers.

In many ways, Microsoft and open source are complementary forces: both have tended to wrong costs out of bloated markets. Microsoft arguably has additional benefits to offer, too, beyond what community-led open-source projects have traditionally provided, like exceptional developer tools and ease-of-use.

Maybe Microsoft's TCO study is a way for Microsoft to suggest that it doesn't like to lose any battle to open source, be it price or some other factor. Fair enough.

It's not as if Microsoft is alone in this. My own company, Alfresco, just released its own TCO study against Microsoft (and other ECM/collaboration vendors). If it's fair for us, it's fair for Microsoft. But at least we're using current information and data.

No, the only thing Microsoft has done "wrong" here is to send out contradictory messages on open source, which is somewhat normal for any large company, especially Microsoft, which has struggled to figure out what it wants from open source. Its primary message, especially in this economy, is going to be "kill open source," and maybe should be, given its need to serve short-term shareholder interests.

There are, however, signs of change in the company. Microsoft is embedding open source into its products. It is releasing open source as a core strategy for its CRM business. I'm therefore not too worried that Microsoft is having growing pains figuring out how to find a consistent story around open source.

If Microsoft is still recycling this same TCO study two years from now, then we have a problem...as would Microsoft.

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