Microsoft Makes Progress, but Still Misses the Point

I’m still digesting certain parts of OSCON 2008, but I think I’ve finally settled on a conclusion for my thoughts on Sam Ramji’s presentation of Microsoft’s contributions to open source projects, and their progress toward rethinking how they do business to be more friendly toward competing platforms and technologies, so that other platforms can integrate with Microsoft products more easily.

I think the talk should’ve been entitled “What Microsoft Has Done for You Lately”. To Microsoft’s credit, they have, in fact, done things that would’ve been unimaginable just a few years ago. However, I think they sort of still miss the point — or they didn’t and just don’t know how to do anything about it.

One must admit that Microsoft has made strides in making various technologies run in a Windows environment. PHP can be run on IIS, and it’s a supported language in their development tools. They’ve opened up the SMB/CIFS spec so that the Samba team can create more robust tools to integrate Windows and UNIX environments, and they’ve become a major sponsor of the Apache Software Foundation. Things like this are nice, but I can’t really accept them as any kind of long-term, reliable solution. Sure, they’ve opened up the SMB spec, but what happens when Microsoft decides to change the spec, or they decide to deprecate SMB altogether?

The answer is that we’re left in the dust, and that leads to my point. The major difference between opening up a spec and opening up the source code is that if you open the spec and then decide to go in another direction, we’re left in the lurch. If you open the source code and decide to change directions, the community building tools around that functionality can decide for themselves to either change directions or fork and exec, so to speak. The real point here is that Microsoft is under no obligation to involve any of the communities with the Open Source world in discussions about their direction with regards to any of the technologies they use. They’re a closed-source, proprietary company, with a fiduciary responsibility to look out for their investors and their bottom line. If they see an opportunity to make more money because more customers want to see them do something that requires something other than SMB, they’re free to do that, and if I were a shareholder, I think I’d want them to do it, because I’d want my stock price to go higher.

I have yet to see a corporate entity involve the community in their direction with regards to technology. I have seen lots of hand-waving, a lot of lip service, and a lot of people speaking at conferences, mostly trying to hide really big elephants behind a well-worded (but otherwise empty) speech, at least vetted, if not written by, marketing and PR folks. Talks like this are pretty transparent.

I think the issue is a hard one. How do you involve a community mostly unconcerned about financial matters (or, at least, mostly not involved with them directly on a regular basis), in a decision-making process that necessarily involves coming to a solution that is “profitable”? Well, actually, I think the issue starts at a higher level than that. The real trouble is a situation which was beautifully illustrated in a talk by Robert “r0ml” Lefkowitz at this year’s OSCON: the corporations are viewing these interactions as taking place between “thinkers” and “doers”, instead of two “thinker” parties which happen to have different philosophies about how things should be done. Given the numerous cultural differences between the groups, one could forgive the corporate types for making the error (by the way, if anyone finds the “Praxis/Techne” talk by r0ml online in video format – post the link! There *was* a video camera there!)

Of course, specific to Microsoft, there are other issues besides simple matters of tech-level software interaction. There’s the issue of software patents, and Microsoft’s “promise” not to sue. There’s also the issue of standards, and MIcrosoft’s attempts to either own them, or destroy those which it can’t own. These are issues that are deep, cultural issues at Microsoft that no single person giving a talk at OSCON is in a position to solve (or to convince me they’ve solved). If Microsoft really does want to interact with the community and interoperate with our software, they should probably be prepared to spend years and dollars just to earn some level of trust. I sincerely hope that they are sincerely trying to open up, but I can’t help but have my doubts.