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Ballmer's false choice: Open source or free soda

Steve Ballmer is as obtuse as they come.

Someday Steve Ballmer will descend from Sinai to find that the natives have grown very restless. In the meantime, it would be interesting to discover with whom he talks, since his understanding of open source continues to be seriously flawed.

At a recent Minority Student Day, a student asked Ballmer if Windows would ever go open source. "No" was the immediate response, with this tacked on for good measure:

An open-source version of Windows would mean not only would we publish Windows source code, we would make it free. That's what open source means. We wouldn't be hosting Minority Student Day if we open-source Windows because we wouldn't have enough profit to pay people, let alone invite in people from the community.

I'm not saying open-source is a bad thing, but it doesn't pay the bills in this company, so we can't embrace that way of doing things. ... We give out free soda pop to everybody who works here. We make our stuff free, people gotta give back the soda pop -- it's just inconsistent with what we do around here.

Ignorance, thy name is Ballmer.

Ballmer's statement, however, may be true on one level, but it's a level that is irrelevant going forward: It may well be that Microsoft-sized profits aren't possible selling open-source bits. Of course, this obscures the fact that Google and others happily build businesses on open source and make Microsoft-esque profits. It's all in figuring out what to sell.

Microsoft's model of selling software is a 20th-century model that will continue to work for it until enterprises discover that they now live in the 21st Century when software is free (but services are not). The model going forward is to give away the core code and charge for services around that software. This is Google's model. It's also Red Hat's, Alfresco's, Facebook's, etc.

Giving away Windows wouldn't necessarily make it "free" (as in soda). That's just Ballmer being obtuse. He's a relic of yesterday's software model. He made a ton of money for himself and for shareholders and the residual of that model will feed many mouths with free soda for years.

But it's yesterday's model, for yesterday's companies. Microsoft might have noticed that it hasn't proved to be relevant in any of the 21st Century's businesses. Its bid for Yahoo! won't change this unless Microsoft changes the way it views its software business.