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Microsoft's Jekyll and Hyde moment with open source

We all have a Mr. Hyde in us. Open source helps to protect the world (and ourselves) from that side.

Last night I finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson's excellent Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've known about the story since I can remember but this was the first time that I had actually read it. For those who haven't, Stevenson's allegory follows a London scientist in his discovery of a way to separate the two sides of his personality (the good side and the bad side), in the process of which he unwittingly liberates his evil side (Mr. Hyde) to his and others' detriment.

It's not unlike the opportunity and struggle that Microsoft has before it. As with any company, Microsoft brims with both good and bad intentions, as variegated as the employees and financial pressures placed upon it. Proprietary licensing is one tool it uses, a tool which is neither good nor bad, though there is nothing in proprietary licensing that is actually good for customers. Customers derive exactly zero benefit from a proprietary license.

Proprietary licensing is 100% in the vendor's favor and serves only to lock out competition and lock in customers. There is no other reason for it.

This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing (vendors need to sell or they won't be able to continue selling product), but it tends toward Mr. Hyde in purpose and is especially dangerous for a company like Microsoft given its market power.

This is why I believe open-source licensing is so critical for Microsoft and other companies who sell software. It protects us from our own worst intentions. Consider what ultimately broke Dr. Jekyll's determination to protect the world from his Mr. Hyde nature:

I resolved in my future conduct to redeem the past; and I can say with honesty that my resolve was fruitful of some good....Nor can I truly say that I wearied of this beneficent and innocent life; I think instead that I daily enjoyed it more completely; but I was still cursed with my duality of purpose; and as the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence....

There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul. And yet I was not alarmed; the fall seemed natural, like a return to the old days before I had made discovery....I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde. (57-58, Norton Critical Edition)

Microsoft has a huge opportunity to carry on the computing revolution that it has already largely started. Namely, Microsoft can continue to lower the cost of computing and the barriers to computing for the entire planet. (Whatever you think of Microsoft, it has done this...despite some collateral damage along the way.)

Microsoft's balance sheet would suggest it already knows how to get there, but I believe the company can do even better by opening up its platform and widening its distribution net through open source. People don't buy (or pirate) Microsoft because of its IP. They buy from Microsoft because of its brand. I suspect there are ways for Microsoft to more openly distribute and develop its product without giving away those billions in profits.

Microsoft is filled with smart people. It can figure this out.

But first it needs to start guarding more of its IP from its worst intentions. Its Mr. Hyde motives, as it were. Bill Hilf, Sam Ramji, and others within the company have started down this Dr. Jekyll road. I believe open-source licensing will help to keep them there.

And, again, it's not just Microsoft. Heck, it's not even just proprietary software companies. Don't think for a moment that open-source companies don't struggle daily with the question of how much to open up while still giving customers compelling reasons to buy. We all push for multi-year deals because it's good for us, not necessarily the customer. We all push for added value that makes it difficult for the customer to move elsewhere. It's a very difficult line to walk, this bridge between our Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde natures.

I feel it even in my dual role as a blogger for CNET and as an employee for Alfresco. As a friend from the industry recently told me, sometimes my posts are more blogger than Alfrescan. Undoubtedly the inverse is also likely true. It's a tricky line to walk and I certainly fail on a regular basis.

I would urge you to take the time to read Stevenson's book. At roughly 60 pages it's easily read on your flight out to Utah to ski the four feet of snow we just had dump on us. It may well change how you think about software. It's certainly affecting how I think about myself and my work.