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Perspective: Microsoft's new open-source woes

CNET's Charles Cooper says the leak of the latest "Halloween memo" speaks volumes about the state of confusion inside Microsoft when it comes to the collaborative programming community.

Memo to Bill Gates:

What a mess. Less than a week after a court-approved deal ends the antitrust case, Microsoft's back in the spotlight. The latest Halloween memo portrays your company as utterly obsessed with the open-source software movement but utterly confused about how best to proceed. I can only imagine the state of confusion. Microsoft has tried to persuade developers and users for the last four years that there's no there there--and to no avail.

Your minions better get a handle soon. The question is whether that's at all possible, but in the meantime, here are a few items to consider:

End the FUD campaign
Enough with the fear, uncertainty and doubt. You once referred to the General Public License's "Pac-Man-like nature," while Steve Ballmer separately described it as a "cancer."

What was the point? I cut that quotation out and pinned it next to his infamous "Heck with Janet Reno" quip. No doubt you believe the GPL doesn't make business sense because it requires developers to return any modifications to the open-source community. But dissing the collaborative programming movement is a waste of time. (About 86 percent of the developers and IT pros surveyed by Microsoft still hold positive views about Linux.) All this does is paint you as a rich-boy bully and a sore loser.

A kinder, gentler monopolist?
Force your people to read highlights from the antitrust trial coverage. Pay special attention to those articles describing how lead government prosecutor David Boies made mincemeat of Microsoft's best and brightest, portraying management as a collection of ruthless, grasping no-goodniks. You dodged that bullet. If the Justice Department drags Microsoft back into court again, don't bet on the court being so forgiving in another go-around.

First thing is force your people to read highlights from four years of antitrust trial coverage.
Hop on a plane
You've got big problems in Europe, where there's already fear and loathing of the hyperpuissance that is the post-Cold War United States. Little surprise, then, to find local governments on the continent seriously considering open source as a viable alternative to a proprietary operating system made in the United States. I'm sure you'd probably prefer playing bridge with Warren Buffett, but you need to get major face time with the elites of the European IT community.

Cost is all relative
Microsoft has spent a lot of effort pitching how its products are more cost-effective than Linux. So what's the take-away after learning that 40 percent of the respondents say they prefer to use open-source software because it reduces their total cost of ownership? It's too easy to blame the problem on a mixed marketing message. You should instead re-examine the company's new software licensing terms that enraged so many of Microsoft's IT customers.

Back to the drawing board
When developers first learned about your shared source strategy, some of them thought Microsoft had turned a new page--that is, until they read the fine print. The licensing model you came up with is a nonstarter. Opening up file formats and links to data may get customers to use documents in different ways, but you still have lots of work explaining why Microsoft's shared source is better than open source. If your lieutenants fail to come up with something that's more attractive, these halfway measures won't do very much.

Microsoft's best chance in this debate is to turn this into an argument over which approach offers better software and support to customers.

Times have changed since Richard Stallman started the free software movement in the early 1980s. Whatever your personal feelings, the collaborative programming movement is picking up momentum. The Apache server dominates the Web, while the domain name system of the Internet runs on BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Domain), which is an open-source-name server.

Linux also is gaining ground as a departmental server operating system. IDC says 27 percent of corporate servers run Linux. And thanks to Microsoft's licensing, there's growing interest in Linux as an OS for desktop systems.

Your best chance is to turn this into a debate over which approach offers better software and support to customers. A few years ago, that would have been a slam dunk for Microsoft. These days I'm no longer so sure.