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The Why Behind Microsoft's OSS Strategy?

Feb 01, 2008, 23:30 (25 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

When Sam Ramji, Director of Platform Technology Strategy and the Open Source Software Lab at Microsoft, describes his company's open source strategy, I believe him. Every word.

If that surprises you, or shocks you, it shouldn't. In fact, I think you should listen to what he has to say, too. I believe Ramji's recent conversation with Mary Jo Foley gives us a vital clue into what Microsoft is really doing regarding open source and Linux.

Ramji is an honest man. The problem is, he isn't telling us the whole story.

Let me emphasize: I do not think that Ramji is being dishonest. An honest man will not immediately tell you his social security number if you ask for it. Honesty does not mean being stupid or careless. And, say what you want about Ramji and his employers, they are not stupid.

What they are not telling you is the why behind all of this. Why are they establishing an open source policy in the first place? Why not start a misleading marketing plan and discredit Linux and its fellow open source applications right out of business?

Well, for one thing, they have. And, for the most part, it did not work. People in IT looked at the Get the Facts campaign and decided that facts were something the campaign seriously lacked. In the end, all it seemed to do was bring more attention to Linux than before, leading many IT organizations to come to the conclusion that Linux is indeed a viable alternative.

But I have a theory running around in my brain that makes me wonder: if Microsoft's FUD has the opposite of the intended affect, is that a clear loss for Microsoft?

Here's what I think might be happening here. This delves into the realm of speculation, and if someone wants to rebut this line of reasoning, feel free. I would especially welcome feedback from Microsoft.

The standard line of thought in the Linux community about Microsoft is that they want to crush Linux like a bug, and anything that they do has that sole end-goal in mind. Goodness knows they have done a lot to perpetuate that over the years: the "cancer" remark, the alleged infringing patents, the constant swipes at quality. Pretty convincing, I must say.

But ponder this for a second: what if the competitive attitude has been artificially heightened? What if all along Microsoft has played up Linux and open source as a real competitor because Microsoft needs a competitor to have more business options?

I know, get out the strait jackets. Bear with me for a bit.

What made this click for me was Foley's interpretation of Ramji's PowerPoint slide that was the centerpiece of her article. She indicated that Microsoft's strategy is to get itself into a position of being a provider of an alternative to the LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP/Perl) stack--a WAMP stack, if you will. That got me wondering: why is is important that Microsoft gets a WAMP stack going?

The obvious answer is that Microsoft wants to dominate yet another aspect of IT in its eerie imitation of the Borg. Another possibility is that by shifting itself into the *AMP arena as a viable competitor to LAMP, Microsoft can try to shed the perception that it is a monopoly. If it can convince customers and government watchdogs that it is really competing with LAMP, then it can do things it really can't do now, such as lower prices, introduce new sales agreements, and the like.

Think about it: if Microsoft tried to slash its prices right now, several government entities could cry foul and accuse it of monopolistic behavior. But if Redmond can demonstrate that it is not a monopoly, that it does indeed face stiff competition in the *AMP space, then it can legitimately make business decisions to compete.

How does one face a competitor? By entering that competitor's field of play. Microsoft, for now, has a solid lock on the home desktop, and a pretty strong presence on the business desktop (though that is changing rapidly). It needs, however, to move into new markets--the LAMP space being one of them. LAMP is an area where Microsoft has not dominated. But it wants to, badly.

It could lower prices to try to compete with LAMP installs, but competing with free is hard to do, especially with the European Union watching your every move. (That old monopoly bugaboo, again.)

So it appears to me that Microsoft is trying to do two things: enter the *AMP space and enter it in such a way that it is on the levelest playing field Microsoft can manage. That means using open source.

If you're using the same technology as your competitors, then suddenly not only can you position products against each other, but now you can make a legitimate claim to price adjustments. Because hey, you're using open source software, too, and you're just trying to pass on the savings to the customers. Now the price difference is less, and Microsoft has neatly avoided any claims of unfair competition.

Even better... if you use open source technology and contribute to it for others to use, you potentially could help make your competitors stronger. And if your failed marketing campaign just happens to send more business to our opponent... in this situation, that might not be a clear loss, because it could also change a government's perception of Redmond being unfair.

And perception is what this game is all about. No one could seriously argue that open source needs some sort of bolstering effort from Microsoft. But in the land o' perception, the image of a Boy Scout walking an old lady across the street looks heartwarming and kind. The fact that the old lady might be a triathelon racer is not usually taken into account.

I will admit that this may be a reach. But I also think, with Microsoft's ongoing legal woes and the threat of the LAMP space forever closed to them using their traditional business practices, this whole notion of competing with open source on open source terms does not sound so far fetched.

If this is the plan, the OSS community should be ready to respond.