What Microsoft’s new ‘openness’ means

As I posted downstream, Microsoft is embracing the idea of “open source,” in which it collaborates with developers who might build interesting components once the company throws open the secrets behind how some of its programs work.

So I’ve turned to my favorite tech guru, Jon Gordon of Future Tense and wavLength to explain it in English.

Q: Is this a big deal?

Not necessarily, because as the European Union has pursued several actions against Microsoft for competitive issues, Microsoft has sort of promised to become “interoperable” … at least four times in the past. So the EU, as well as several open source advocates are saying, ‘well, Microsoft, you certainly promised to become this way in the past but, ‘show us the beef,’ so if they do what they say they’re going to do rather than just promise it, then it could be a big deal.

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Q: What would be the net effect of that sort of thing?

“Open source” means usually that the software is free. Any software developer can get his or her hands on the code and make it better. It’s a collaborative software development scheme. So you take a software program like Thunderbird and an enterprise…. could use Thunderbird instead of Microsoft Outlook when they’re the Microsoft Exchange Server.

So a big company would use the Microsoft Exchange Server for e-mailing, or calendaring, for contacts and things like that, and pretty much Microsoft Outlook is the program that sits on peoples’ desktops to use the Exchange Server. Maybe now they could use an open source program like Thunderbird.

One of the technical guys at Microsoft also had a couple of other examples when this was announced. An example that Ray Ozzie had was, say you have a program that could tap into a doctor’s schedule that is kept online somewhere. That program could tap into your calendar information in Outlook and schedule appointments for you at the doctor’s office.

So we’re talking about programs that offer some value to Microsoft programs and Microsoft programs have not been very interoperable in the past. They haven’t shared the code like Google has, for example, to allow other functions or other programs to work along with other Microsoft programs. Those are the kind of things that you might see if Microsoft sort of shares its codes for real.

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Q: They’re not getting into this early on. Internet Explorer, for example, trails Firefox in terms of useful add-ons. It’s not too late for Microsoft, right? But they’re not at the head of the parade either.

I think that’s exactly right. It’s not too late. Microsoft could certainly commit to the open source movement in a positive way. And why are they making this move? Part of it is that open source software has been around for awhile and it’s been successful and Microsoft could believe that open source software, the rising use of it in business and government, is sort of forcing its hand.

Also keep in mind that the deal between Microsoft and Yahoo, in which Microsoft is trying to take over Yahoo, could draw new takeover scrutiny as well, and this could be an attempt to blunt future criticism of the company.

And finally, Microsoft is trying to win approval from the ISO, which is the international standards setting body, for their Office Open format, which is like a document format. And a lot of government contracts that require software to have a more open standard depend on that open standard, and so Microsoft could see a lot of big government contracts hanging in the balance.

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Q: But this “openness” thing… it’s not exactly Microsoft’s culture. They’ll have to teach their managers how to think in a different way.

I think this comes from the top down. I really think it’s a Steve Ballmer-Bill Gates thing. Microsoft has shown it can sort of turn on a dime when it wants to. Look at the focus on security with Microsoft Vista. Say what you will about Vista, it certainly has proven to be a much more secure operating system than previous versions of Windows, and Microsoft showed a big commitment to improving that area, and that certainly has not been Microsoft’s culture in the past.

I’m sure it would be a change to start thinking all “crunchy and granola” and open source for Microsoft, and I don’t think they’re going to go that far. But I think they have shown they can commit to an idea that is radically different from the way they behaved in the past.

(Listen to the full response)

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