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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bye-bye Ballmer, hello open source? Microsoft's upcoming options

Despite early 'cancer' slur, Steve Ballmer has been investing in open source. Could his departure open doors at Microsoft?

There's been plenty of speculation this week about the consequences of the announced retirement of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. But I've seen little that considers the consequences of the management change for Microsoft's engagement with open source software. I think there might be significant repercussions.Bye-bye Ballmer, hello open source? Microsoft's upcoming options
In my talk at OSCON this year, I explained how the corporate journey to software freedom was a multistep process rather than a decision. The seven steps of that journey are the following:
[ The two guys most likely to succeed Steve Ballmer | For a quick, smart take on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]
  1. Open source as enemy: Outright opposition to open source. It may not seem much of a step, but obsessing about an enemy is a sign that the threat of change has been understood.
  2. Damage containment: Open source messages are for marketing purposes and are isolated to business units or product dimensions that are market followers rather than market leaders.
  3. Embrace and extend: Larger strategies are reframed as "open source" while semantic games attempt to conceal the resulting cognitive dissonance. An open source office is created to manage this and build reputational credit with developers.
  4. Executive air cover: A new C-level exec is able to defend actions by the open source office and to counter strategies elsewhere in the corporation that threaten to destroy the reputational credit the open source office creates.
  5. Exploratory opening: The company sets limited business unit strategies that involve coherent plans for profit while depending on effective software production in the community.
  6. General opening: Open source is the default for new business activities, and existing businesses are expected to transform profitably into open source-based business. Holdouts get escalated to the CEO.
  7. Full embrace: Software freedom -- both delivering it to customers and benefiting from it within the business -- is a fundamental part of the overall company strategy.
Microsoft's journey
Microsoft started the journey a while ago, but has spent many years stuck at step 3 because of a lack of executive air cover for its open source staff (which in turn has led to a reasonably high rotation). With news that Steve Ballmer will be gone within 12 months, it's possible that we may see step 4 of the process executed -- the appointment of a chief executive who genuinely understands the meshed society and the essential role open source software plays in it -- and a new open source volcano erupting. It may be sci-fi as my editor thinks, but there's a chance.
Consider some of the data points:
  • Microsoft Open Technologies is now incorporated as a wholly owned but legally distinct subsidiary. At present, it offers little more than a liability firewall for the corporation, isolating Microsoft from patent and licensing risk, but it is strongly staffed and has high potential.
  • After a rocky start as the window dressing for Microsoft's CodePlex forge, the now-renamed Outercurve Foundation is gathering momentum and offers a fine vehicle for difference-making projects once it has gained the trust of sufficient developers. With the move of Jim Jagielski from Apache to CodePlex (closely followed by the appointment of Microsoft Open Technologies staffer Ross Gardler as president of Apache), there's potential for bridges to be built through the legacy of this organization.
  • Much of the stasis for open source at the company was the result of Microsoft's hard-baked executive portfolio. But as Sean Michael Kerner notes, a big slice of executive leadership has left Microsoft in recent years, including Ozzie, Elop, Muglia, and Sinofsky:
    In the past three years, the executives who ran the Windows, Server and Business divisions have left. Both Muglia and Sinofsky worked at Microsoft for decades shaping the strategy and culture that enabled the company to dominate in the desktop and server arenas. Both are gone, and now soon so is Ballmer.
    A majority of that executive bench has quit (or been helped to quit) in the last few years as Microsoft's board has presumably delivered ultimatum after ultimatum to Ballmer. Unwittingly, he has cleared out a lot of the deadwood blocking the stream.
Time for a revolution?
The potential is there. With the right choice of CEO and with all the dyed-in-the-wool naysayers out of the company, Microsoft's many open source experts -- both technical and business -- could radically transform the company. Despite his famous Monkey Boy performance, Ballmer systematically alienated the developer category that now controls enterprise software development. As Matt Asay pointed out:
Instead of tapping into the rising developer class, Ballmer has spent the past 13 years living within this insular cocoon of CIO feedback and healthy profit margins.
New leadership could target open source technologies, as well as the developers who create and deploy them. Will it happen? Not if the purported short list is right. But with the right choice, this could be the moment for Microsoft to break out of the trap its past success created and finally embrace open source in a way that wins in the market. You heard it here first.

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