Ballmer Gets Bowlegged – Microsoft Adopts Open-Source Stance

Thursday, February 21, 2008
Posted by Jim Hedger @ 3:49 pm

Microsoft announced today that it was committed to opening up and sharing far more of its technical secrets with users and the software industry. Calling it a strategic shift in the way the company does business and handles information, Microsoft executives characterized the move as a major step for the Redmond WA based firm.

Microsoft is adopting a more open-source stance, in part, because European anti-trust regulators have told them to in order to ensure interoperability between its operating systems and productivity products and software developed by rival companies.

In October, Microsoft was forced to open its code to rivals as part of its settlement of a nine-year anti-trust case in Europe. European regulators have recently threatened to reopen investigations into Microsoft’s practices in order to get them to comply with the terms of that agreement. Another investigation is looking into Microsoft’s reluctance to share information about Word and Excel to competitors making complimentary products.

Moving forward into an uncertain future, the company has several other reasons to open up to outside developers. Quoted in the New York Times, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said his firm was taking these steps on their own and signaled the company would shift to adapt to, “… the opportunities and risks of a more connected, more services-orientated world.”

What he really meant to say was that Google, Sun, Linux and various social networking applications are scaring the heck out of him. He also acknowledges that Microsoft fully understands the implications of the Internet. It has become a fairly stable operating system. Ballmer has several billion quarterly reasons to be frightened.

Here’s a scary scenario. I could dump all Microsoft products in 24-hours and barely notice the difference. Currently I have no intention of migrating away from Microsoft but I could. Though I have worked on or around the Internet for over a decade, I am not much of a hardware geek. Nevertheless, I know enough to easily enable me to move far away from Microsoft products if I wanted to. Trust me, if I could do it, anyone can.

Linux rocks as a desktop or laptop operating system and one doesn’t have to mess around with command lines to use commercialized versions of it. A user only needs to get their computer running with a functional web browser for it to be a useful, productive machine. Once online, there are more than enough web-based environments to work and communicate in.

Google Docs is an almost passable alternative to Microsoft’s Office suite. Time is on Google’s side here as their stable of productivity products is newer and regularly growing bigger and better. Gmail or Yahoo Mail provide easy to use and universally accessible Email systems allowing me rid myself of the cumbersome but eminently useful Microsoft Outlook. There are several other alternatives I could mention that could, if I wanted them to, help me live a Microsoft-free lifestyle.

It might just be too late for the wizened wizards of Redmond. Just as it was late to harness the true power of search and the Internet, Microsoft is pulling itself to the open-source table a few minutes after the waiter took everyone else’s order.

In the company’s defense, Mr. Ballmer did note that Microsoft has been limited by its “unique legal situation”, a reference to numerous anti-trust cases and the fact that Microsoft has a precarious, proprietary hold on being the top software manufacturer in the world. There are several compelling reasons Microsoft felt unwilling as well as unable to open its code to outsiders. Nevertheless, time marches forward and the abilities of the industry threaten to overtake the heliocentric model Microsoft has built. Ideas like that make Mr. Ballmer throw inner-fits and office chairs.

Increasingly looking like the ultimate Johnny-come-lately, Microsoft is moving to save its own skin. The company desperately needs to upgrade its outward outlook. It has lost every one of the bidding wars it took part in over the last few years, it is getting slobbered on while Google devours its lunch, and; shuffle after shuffle they just can’t seem to find the right dance rhythm. Its dalliance with Yahoo, though seen my most in the industry as a positive inevitability, is currently dragging both companies into dangerous and absolutely uncharted waters, full speed ahead.

According to the NYTimes, Microsoft took its first major step towards and open-source future today with the release of “30,000 pages of technical documentation detailing how its Windows desktop and Microsoft server programs communicate and share information.”

If you think about it, that’s actually a bigger step than it appears at first glance but it comes very late in the game. Hopefully they have another batch of tricks stuffed up their sleeves. It is difficult to see Microsoft making many long-term moves until the fate of the Yahoo deal is decided. Until then, Microsoft’s move towards open-source ideals seems less about idealism than it does about illusion.

2 Comments »

  1. Awesome analysis Jim.

    And don’t forget OpenOffice. They should get at least an honorable mention as far as alternatives to MS products go. :)

    Comment by Dave Davies — Friday, February 22, 2008 @ 9:47 am

  2. This is a very good move for Microsoft i believe. In changing times, at times, firms has to adapt. Thank you for sharing!

    Comment by Billy Marks — Tuesday, April 15, 2008 @ 12:01 am

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