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Microsoft and open source: Welcome to the Borg?

Microsoft has an offer open-source startups are having a hard time refusing. Should they?

Microsoft has an offer open-source startups are having a hard time refusing. Should they?

Microsoft (Sam Ramji)

That's the question I asked myself while reading Mary Jo Foley's excellent article that dissects Microsoft's open-source strategy. As it turns out, it's very similar to Microsoft's general partner strategy: embrace and envelope. (Or embrace, extend, and extinguish, as used to be Microsoft's marching orders.)

Microsoft is looking at open-source software (OSS) as just another flavor of independent software vendors (ISV) software. Microsoft's goal is to convince OSS vendors to port their software to Windows. But Microsoft doesn't want OSS software to just sit on top of Windows; the company wants this software to be tied into the Windows ecosystem by integrating with Active Directory, Microsoft Office, Expression designer tools, System Center systems-management wares and SQL Server database.

Sounds OK, right? Sort of. As Mary Jo continues:

Microsoft's OSS strategy makes a lot of sense for Microsoft. It's another way for Microsoft to try to make Linux obsolete, and not look as obviously ruthless doing so.

Therein lies the problem. Most open-source applications get evaluated on Windows. Most go into production on Linux. There are good reasons for this.

For all of Microsoft's efforts, Windows is still not seen as a strong mission-critical operating system. Despite all of Microsoft's efforts, Linux is. Many developers have Windows running on their machines, so they evaluate open-source applications with Windows. When they're ready to remove the training wheels, they go with Linux.

As for partnering with Microsoft to be part of its ecosystem, there are blessings and curses to this. The downside is having customer choice neutered by attaching open source to all of Microsoft's proprietary add-ons (SQL Server, IIS, Active Directory, etc.). The upside is increasing choice by having these same things for customers who want them.

Microsoft's biggest problem in attracting open-source ISVs is that it has demonstrated a propensity to hurt its partners when convenient. This isn't because Microsoft is a bad company but rather because it is a strong, growing company. As it seeks room to grow it often grows on top of its partners.

For an open-source vendor this is arguably less of a threat since it has fewer secrets to give up. What secret information does Microsoft gain from working with an open-source vendor? Certainly not any IP. Possibly not even any confidential roadmap information (since much of this is public with the better open-source companies).

So, is there a threat to open-source (application) companies in cozying up with Microsoft? Probably not much. The greater threat is to the open-source ecosystem by cutting off Linux at the knees. I believe open source is better off by having a vibrant ecosystem from top to bottom: applications down to operating systems. I'd much rather encourage a completely free and open-source platform than a halfway platform.

I'm not averse to working with Microsoft. Bill, Sam, and team have been great to work with on the occasions I've needed them for customer accounts. But I'm still wary of the larger Redmond beast.