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Behind Microsoft's open-source jitters

Open source is out-Microsofting Microsoft with a more efficient distribution model that is more subversive to its market hegemony than to its development model.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently struck a deal with the president of the Generalitat de Catalunya in Spain, which had earlier made a commitment to move off Microsoft and other proprietary software to open source, to get free Microsoft touch-screen PCs and other technology.

George Orwell might pay "Homage to Catalonia," but why should Microsoft care about a tiny deal in a tiny market?

The answer came from my friend and Alfresco CTO John Newton while we were talking yesterday:

Microsoft is a distribution model. It's certainly not an innovator. Open source challenges Microsoft because it offers an alternative distribution model, one that is more efficient.

We talk often of open source as a development methodology, and so it is. But I agree with John: the open-source distribution model is arguably much more subversive to Microsoft's market hegemony than its development model.

I've asked before why Microsoft, of all the enterprise software companies, stands alone in accusing open source, and specifically (though not exclusively) Linux, of stealing intellectual property. Why don't we see Oracle, IBM, and other big software companies deriding open source?

Because Microsoft, more than any other company, has built a massive distribution channel through its partners, one that is seriously threatened by the vastly more efficient open-source model: the free (as in price and is in license) download.

Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, once told me that Microsoft knows how to compete with 1 cent but fears 0 cents, and so it seeks to impose a patent tax on open-source software in order to raise its price to a level at which its highly efficient licensing model can compete. Open source, however, refuses to cooperate, continuing to spread itself through free downloads with no proprietary strings attached.

Microsoft, in other words, is being Microsofted, and the Redmond giant doesn't like it. Even as Microsoft has dramatically reduced the cost and complexity of computing, so, too, is open source reducing Microsoft's price even further, beating Microsoft at its own game.

It's not just license costs that are lower, either. It's the cost of entry: Microsoft software generally requires other Microsoft software to run. If you want to run SharePoint or BizTalk, for example, you're going to need Windows, SQL Server, etc. Open-source solutions, however, work with other free and open-source databases, application servers, and operating systems.

Why does Microsoft struggle with open source? Because open source is a dramatically thinner, fitter version of Microsoft's own partner-dependent distribution model. If open source were a vendor, Microsoft could compete. It struggles, however, to compete with a phenomenon.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.