Microsoft doesn't need open source

Company's ability to defend its desktop monopoly depends on proprietary software, but its future on the Web almost certainly forces it to embrace much more open ways of doing business.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

What do you do when you have billions of dollars in the bank and more money coming in each day than most companies can score in their corporate lifetimes?

You probably don't open source your software.

That's the conclusion that Mary Jo Foley and I arrived at following a long conversation at Sun's JavaOne Conference about what Microsoft should do about open source. It's nice to think of Microsoft fully joining the open-source community, but it's unlikely. The company has billions of reasons to make feints at open source to appease its critics while holding a proprietary line to appease its shareholders.

It's not pretty, but it's reality.

Why even bother making the feints, you ask? It's not as if Microsoft's customers are clamoring for it to open source its products. As Foley noted, they likely don't even want Microsoft to acquire Yahoo. They simply want Microsoft to keep churning out copies of Office and Windows that they can feed to their corporate drones (while said drones are moving to the Mac in ever greater numbers. But I digress.).

Microsoft's open-source charade is not about customers. It's about regulators. Until Microsoft can convince U.S. and European regulators that its market power is not as bad as it once was, the company will need to hide behind expressions of openness.

Hence, Microsoft "opens" up its protocols (i.e., lets everyone read but not touch...without forking over cash). It inks "open" interoperability agreements with Novell and others, which actually do nothing more than bind otherwise open-source success to Microsoft's proprietary technology. Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith acknowledges the shift, or lack thereof:

"It is (a change in philosophy) in some significant ways and yet it has also other aspects that are a continuation and we're probably thinking a little bit about both pieces," Smith said, explaining Microsoft's twin thrusts of promoting intellectual property rights by encouraging interoperability among various software platforms.

Business as usual. Just under the openness guise.

Classic, successful Microsoft. I have no doubt that Sam Ramji and others at Microsoft are in earnest about their interest in and promotion of open source. But they don't write the checks at Microsoft. Ballmer does, and he's no fan of open source and open standards precisely because he is sitting in the incumbent's chair, and incumbents aren't known for opening themselves up to competition whether it be a political campaign or a software market.

Microsoft doesn't need open source. Not to defend its monopolies. Open source is a way of toppling ill-founded monopolies, not a way to create them.

Which brings me to my last point: defense of Microsoft's desktop monopoly depends upon proprietary software. But its future on the Web almost certainly depends on embracing open source and much more open ways of doing business. It's almost certain that the company will not be able to straddle the closed/open divide between the desktop (closed) and the Web (open).

Microsoft is clearly trying, working away in the background on ways to tie the desktop to the Internet cloud, and maybe it will succeed. But the company is going to struggle to challenge the Internet incumbents without a bit of openness in its arsenal.