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Microsoft's real open-source nightmare

If anti-U.S. blowback takes its toll on software, would any of the three presidential candidates do much to help?

SAN FRANCISCO--On the eve of this country's presidential election, here's a question I'd like to pose to the remaining three candidates: what would you do if other governments begin snubbing U.S. companies because of nationalistic reasons? In particular, one big software vendor comes to mind.

If Microsoft has the equivalent of a foreign policy czar, I'll be shocked if that question isn't front and center. Perhaps more closely associated with U.S. technological prowess than any company in techdom, Microsoft is vulnerable to being viewed as a surrogate for American hegemony abroad. So far, the worst case scenario hasn't materialized, even in the aftermath of the Iraq war. But that's not to say Microsoft inspires warm and fuzzy feelings overseas.

Microsoft logo

Microsoft has had a famously cantankerous relationship with the European Union. Even though Europe's top regulator, Neelie Kroes, doesn't decide what software local governments buy, her run-ins with Steve Ballmer reflect distrust on both sides. (Here's the audio recording of Kroes' press conference last month when she announced a $1.3 billion penalty for noncompliance with previous regulatory decisions.)

If Microsoft really got singed because of strong anti-U.S. blowback, it would prove an incredible boon for open source. Until now, Microsoft has held its own against open source, but the same trends driving adoption on this side of the Atlantic apply overseas. (Microsoft has been aggressive about making the comparative case against open source, tossing everything but the kitchen sink into the argument; obviously, it hasn't worked.)

So far, local open-source companies don't need to compete by playing the nationalism card. Instead, it's a question of cost and technology--an increasingly persuasive argument in open source's favor during a time of economic turbulence. Daniel Chalef, chief operating officer of a U.S. open-source company with roots in South Africa called KnowledgeTree, told me at an SDForum's Global Open Source Forum symposium here that "for the most part, it's a question of local control over capital" and not a national issues.

At least for the time being, maybe that's so.

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Coop note: In the original text of my post, I misidentified KnowledgeTree. The company, which has roots in South Africa, recently moved its headquarters to the U.S.