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Bill Gates: Open source champ?

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Was Bill Gates, chairman and co-founder of Microsoft(s msft) and the power behind the proprietary Windows-and-Office juggernaut, really an open source champion? A new Wired article lays Microsoft’s wider embrace of open source technologies — most recently Node.js support in Windows Azure  and the decision to back Hadoop at the expense of an internal Dryad project, squarely at Gates’ feet.

The story recounts a meeting in the summer of 2008 where some (unnamed) top Microsoft execs argued against opening up more to open source while Ray Ozzie, the chief software architect, and Sam Ramji, the open source strategist, argued the opposite. According to Wired:

Then Bill Gates stood up.

He walked to the whiteboard and drew a diagram of how the system could work, from copyrights to code contribution to patents, and he said — in no uncertain terms — that the company had to make the move.

That was it: Microsoft had to be more open to open source. The story quotes a number of former and current Microsoft employees who might be trying to curry favor with their former or current boss, but the account rings true. Here’s why.

1: Microsoft is nothing if not pragmatic

The company will fight, fight, fight for its own agenda, but if it senses futility, it will declare victory and reverse course. I have heard Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer counsel a company that was engaged in a fruitless tussle with another company to do exactly that: “Declare victory and move on.”  And that’s why I wouldn’t be surprised to see Word and PowerPoint on the iPad or iPhone — not too long after Ballmer mockingly stomped on an iPhone at the company sales meeting. If Microsoft believes that the X86-based PC is on the losing side of history, it will do what it can to keep its money-making Office — if not Windows — on every device on the planet. The decision to support ARM architectures in the upcoming Windows 8 is just the beginning of that journey.

And that is why a company with a CEO who once likened Linux to cancer can now with a straight face bring Node.js, Hadoop, even Linux itself into the fold. There are now reports that Microsoft is recruiting Linux experts whose mission it will be “to identify, define, scope, implement and drive to completion software projects that promote full, transparent interoperability between Windows and Linux in Microsoft virtual and cloud environments.”

2: Once it gets the memo — often late — Microsoft goes all out

Microsoft is often late to the party, but once it gets there, look out! It was late to spreadsheets (after Lotus); it was late to word processing (after WordPerfect); it was late to PC databases (after dBase, Foxpro, Paradox.) It was famously late to the Internet — but once Gates decided to turn the ship around — as Netscape Navigator posed a huge threat — that ship was turned around. Gates’ 1995 memo on the Internet tidal wave is one example of this. Anyone remember Navigator now? Or even Netscape? Years later, Gates even had the good grace in one speech to claim to have “discovered the Internet”  (wait for it) after everyone else did.

It’s tempting now, with iPhones and Android phones tearing up the market, and more businesses flocking to Apple hardware,  to write Microsoft off. Word to the wise: don’t be hasty.

3:  Microsoft works best when it’s under the gun

And the corollary is that Microsoft works worst when it’s dominant. Ask most shops why they upgrade Office (or Windows) and it’s typically because they want to stay legal — not because they’re dying for new features. It’s hard to remember in this age of Google Chrome and Firefox and Opera, that Internet Explorer was once the upstart browser. It left Netscape Navigator in the dust because Microsoft had to make it better than Navigator or no one would use it. On the other hand, many people feel that Microsoft Office, the undisputed leader in productivity software suites, remains fat and feature bloated. In short: Office could still use a good competitor. (Pre-emptive apologies to the Open Office, Google Apps fans out there.)

The Microsoft SQL Server team remains scrappy and innovative. Why? Because they have a dominant competitor (still) in Oracle(s orcl). As Cade Metz, the reporter who wrote this article says: Microsoft is “a company that’s at its best when it’s freaking out.”

To be clear, Microsoft had an open source strategy before this 2008 meeting. For example,  it had already worked with Samba, an open source effort to foster interoperability between Windows clients and Linux servers — although cynics said much of that peaceful coexistence came about because of legal anti-trust action.

But the Wired account holds that it was Gates’ statement at that meeting that blew away any lingering obstructionism in the ranks and forced Microsoft to get off its duff when it comes to open source. Given the boundless regard that Microsoft employees hold for Gates, only he could get the famously fractious product groups to get on board with open source.

10 Responses to “Bill Gates: Open source champ?”

  1. Why is it that Microsoft gets lambasted in the open-source world, but Apple gets a free pass? Apple contributes far less to the open-source world, and unlike Microsoft, has built more of their infrastructure on open-source.

    I do not want to defend Microsoft, I hate having to work on Windows, but there are far more evil companies out there.

    • @evan, i hear you. I saw a tweet fly by a few hours ago — something about, “it’s easy to complain about closed systems, but also easy to love how well they can work” (or something like that.) as a relatively new Mac user, i do find that the overall computing experience is far, far superior to what i found with Windows over the last decade.

  2. Disclaimer: I worked for Microsoft for about two years, up until last September.

    Making generalizations about the company based on things it did decades ago, when it has since grown exponentially, with a great deal of turnover, strikes me as a little silly. In fact, making generalizations about a company with 90,000 people at all is goofy. A company that big is diverse, and culture is vastly different from one team to the next.

    There are too many facets to open source to simply say, “Microsoft does open source.” That said, look around the company. Its ASP.NET MVC framework, arguably the cornerstone of its Web development platform, is open source. It contributes to jQuery. It helped get the Outercurve Foundation started. You can see open source products in use all over the MSDN sites.

    The point is that the company doesn’t need a “strategy.” Being involved with open source software is just the natural progression of things. It didn’t take Bill Gates or anyone else to get there.

  3. I think this is a spot on estimation because outside of M$ not even Google comes late to a game and sets a new stage like M$ has so often! They are easy to deride and hate but no one that has any insight would ever underestimate them!