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Opening up in self-interest of Google, Microsoft

Google and Microsoft are opening up their data and source code, which is exactly what we'd expect from self-interested, profit-seeking corporations.

Microsoft is launching an open-source foundation. Google is promising to keep user data portable. Both moves seem to cut against the financial self-interest of the two technology giants. Have the gods gone crazy, or are the business strategies of the industry's biggest players more subtle than "Embrace. Extend. Extinguish"?

With a steady adoption of open-source business and development strategies, Microsoft has gone from open-source hater to open-source embracer in just a couple of years:

This isn't to whitewash all that Microsoft has not done well vis-a-vis open source (e.g., I'm not a fan of its patent-licensing arrangements, including the "interoperability" agreement with Novell), but clearly, Microsoft has been actively adopting open source as part of its business strategy. I'll address the "Why?" question below.

Google, for its part, has long supported open-source software. And it's easy to see why: the company makes its money from data, not software. The more people that have access to a great Web experience through Firefox or Chrome, or have computer access through low-cost Chrome OS-based Netbooks, the better, as they'll almost inevitably find their way to data-rich services from Google.

Google, in other words, has a strong interest in promoting open source and closed data.

All of this makes Google's Data Liberation Front--"an engineering team at Google whose singular goal is to make it easier for users to move their data in and out of Google products--so intriguing. The DLF appears to be giving away Google's single best option for monetizing its user base.


What is Google thinking? One answer may be that Google is trying to head off government scrutiny and intervention. As CNET News' Tom Krazit posits, "anything Google can do to show that it isn't planning to create an impenetrable fortress surrounding user data, it's going to do."

That's one cynical and likely accurate view. But I think that there's more to the story.

Google has created an array of services that increasingly dominate their respective markets. Consumers and businesses are apparently very happy to give more of their time and attention to Google products.

As such, Google's primary concern revolves around keeping those users from leaving. While the DLF makes it easier for customers to leave Google, it also obviates the need to do so. So long as Google customers feel sure that they can leave on their own terms, they likely won't.

Microsoft is starting to learn the same thing. Its customers tend to use Microsoft products because they work, not because some evil genius in Redmond dreamed up diabolical ways to keep them locked in through closed file formats.

Don't believe me? Look at Microsoft's support for CMIS (Content Management Interoperability Services), a new content standard that promises to do for content management systems what SQL did for the database market. CMIS enables information portability between different content repositories. (Disclosure: Alfresco, my employer, was a founding member of CMIS, along with IBM, Microsoft, EMC, and others.)

In other words, CMIS makes it easy to move content out of SharePoint into, say, Documentum. It also enables application vendors to write to the CMIS standard, rather than specifically to SharePoint.

CMIS Interoperability Standard Microsoft, EMC, IBM

Microsoft has been actively engaged in drafting the CMIS specification and appears to be a strong proponent of it. Why? Why would Microsoft, which has much to gain from SharePoint being the center of a new lock-in strategy, support an open standard that makes it easy to move content out of SharePoint and into competing repositories?

Because Microsoft knows that it can win.

Take Microsoft's pre-CMIS partnership with Documentum. As CMS Watch anecdotally references, SharePoint is much easier to use than Documentum, making any partnership/integration between the two a largely one-way street from Documentum to SharePoint, just one reason that SharePoint has boomed, even as the economy has busted. This is only going to get better for Microsoft with CMIS interoperability.

Interoperability favors the vendor whose products are easier to use. By opening up, Microsoft is opening its doors to more customers and, hence, more money.

Google and Microsoft aren't supporting open source or open standards or open data because they grew up as Boy Scouts or Girls Scouts, and feel that it's the right thing to do.

Rather, they're increasingly engaged in open business strategies because they recognize the financial rewards that can stem from doing so. Openness is not a religion; it's a business strategy--a strategy that Microsoft and Google are learning to play too.