Microsoft as an open source teamplayer?


It should come as no surprise for the readers of this weblog and for people who knows me from the Danish IT-industry that I am a fierce proponent of open source as a customer-friendly business model with among other things the potential to break Microsoft’s monopoly or near monopoly in certain software markets.

I have clear and vested interests in open source software becoming successful, partly as a citizen in Denmark and of the world, where an efficient software market is becoming increasingly important, partly as a lawyer and consultant who hopes to make a lot of money from clients by advising on open source legal matters.

I am one of the co-founders of the Danish Open Source Vendors Association and participate in a lot of different venues and organisations that deal with the promotion of open source software.

Thus having made full disclosure of my preferences and economic interests from the outset, I also need to emphasise that I have never felt that Microsoft as a company or the people working there are particularly “evil” or “bad persons”.

Microsoft are a great and hugely successful company that all business people should admire and take lessons from. Microsoft employees are among the most intelligent people within the IT-industry that I have ever met.

I think that Microsoft is doing what everybody else wants to do, if your aim is to be successful: to maximise your profits in your capacity as a self-interested individual or firm. If this was not your purpose, you should not be in business. If I was in a position to monopolise legal services in Denmark, I would surely take advantage hereof (luckilly for other lawyers and society at large I am not in such a position).

Notwithstanding my acknowledgement that Microsoft as a company pursue the goals that every profit maximising company should do and that this self-interested behavior is the basis on which a capitalist market-oriented society should operate, I think that it should be equally clear that a monopoly or a near-monopoly is always bad for competitors and customers and for society as a whole. And my position is – like that of the Economist and courts both in Europe and the US – that Microsoft has a monopoly in certain software markets.

Maybe the most important regulation of markets in capitalistic societies is competition or anti-trust law. As all markets are not perfect, and as many markets are closer to imperfection than to perfection, strong and efficient competition regulation is paramount.

In my opinion it is not a question of whether you are for or against Microsoft, but whether you are against monopolistic behaviour.

In my experience it is also impossible to generalise and to say that a company is either this or that. A company consists – and especially a large company consists – of a great number of people and a lot of departments that despite strenuous efforts to promote a single goal, vision or culture in fact has diverging or often conflicting interests.

This is mostly apparent when you read corporate press releases and relate those to conversations you have had with people within the same organisations. Sometimes you cannot fathom that the one person undersigning a press release is in fact part of the same company that another person that you spoke to about the same subject the day before is.

I must stress that I am not saying that Microsoft are more inconsistent in this respect than any other companies are. I am just saying that Microsoft as a large multinational corporation are faced with exactly the same organisational dilemmas as every other large organisation. But when I interact with the local people that I know at Microsoft Denmark, it seems clear to me that Microsoft are just like any other huge cooperate behemoth.

I meet people from Microsoft Denmark in a lot of different situations. I participate in several committees and counsels appointed by large Danish IT-industry organisations and by the Danish government with Jørgen Bardenfleth who is the CEO of Microsoft Denmark. I have attended open source seminars and workshops with Ole Kjeldsen who is the manager of Platform & Development at Microsoft Denmark and who is also working a lot with interfacing Microsoft products with open source products. I know Claus Holte Andersen who is the corporate vice president of Microsoft Business Solutions Sales & Operations from his dealings with several start-up firms that I advise. And I have a very positive impression of these people.

Before the summer vacation I had the privilege to meet with Claus, Jørgen, Ole and Jacob Schaumburg-Müller (right to left in picture above) for breakfast at Microsoft’s Vedbæk offices in Copenhagen. The purpose of the meeting was to have a frank discussion about how Microsoft and the Danish open source industry could work better together in the future.

The meeting was very constructive and in particular I enjoyed the honest and the straight-forward discussions with the four people, each of whom I admire highly on a professional level.

However, I came away from the meeting with two conclusions. First of all I think that it is important that the open source communities and industry – in this case here in Denmark – should open up to Microsoft and try to work together with Microsoft to create products, services, solutions and other offerings that combines Microsoft’s code and code released under open source licenses.

To me it is evident that this will work in favour of the promotion of the open source software in general. Of course you can argue that working together with Microsoft will allow Microsoft at least to attempt to exert the strategy that is often attributed to Microsoft: extend, embrace and extinguish.

I am confident however that this strategy will not work exactly because of the strength of the open source value proposition. If the open source community is afraid of “opening up” to Microsoft, this can validly in my opinion be taken as a sign that an open source strategy is not as strong and viable as we would like it to be.

In fact I am convinced that more cooperation with Microsoft on a practical, customer-oriented level will only serve to “force” Microsoft into becoming more like an open source company itself.

My second conclusion was that this is still not the time for the open source community to let Microsoft into the inner halls of the political decisions processes in organisations that are established only with the aim of promoting open source software. I still find that there are such strong forces within Microsoft that if not want open source to go away and perish, then want to delay the ultimate success of open source for as long as possible.

In my opinion Microsoft will for a long period still attempt in any political context to prevent, postpone or make hindrances for adoption of the use of open source software and the promulgation of real open standards in private as in public businesses. Such strategy is sadly still in Microsoft’s short-term interest.

Therefore it does not make sense to let Microsoft participate in organisations that have as their clear goals to promote open source software, in particular at the expense of closed source software licensing strategies.

I must emphasise again that I think that it is fully legitimate for Microsoft to pursue their current strategies. If Microsoft feel that this is in their best business interests, they should clearly do so as a profit maximising firm. I would do exactly the same, if my monopoly in providing legal services within a certain area was about to be abolished.

By the end of the day I am very much looking forward to working together with Microsoft people, in particular the people that I know from Microsoft Denmark, on combined closed source/open source project and ultimately fully and genuine open source projects. I think that we will all have a lot of fun, made a lot of customers happy and make ourselves good money by doing this.

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