Microsoft: Open Source Friend or Foe?

A colleague recently posted a link to the following article and asked to hear other’s thoughts: Meet Bill Gates, the Man Who Changed Open Source Software. The following are my thoughts…

Microsoft must embrace open source software or it will become irrelevant. It’s not surprising that Gates had the foresight to realize this early. He’s historically been good at identifying technology shifts before they happen.

Open source software development emphasizes transparency and quality. If the community is not happy with a product’s direction or if the originator abandons it, someone can fork the project and take it a different way. Open source software competes on its own merit not on price or marketing tactics.

The popularization of social networking complements open source software development. Open source software developers formed some of the earliest online communities long before the terms “web 2.0” and “social media” were coined. This spirit is embodied in the popular source code repository and collaboration service, GitHub, who’s tagline is “Social Coding”. You might think of social media and social networking as open source content development.

The pioneers of the first PC’s had an open source mentality. They shared each breakthrough as it happened. They were not in it for money. Most of these early pioneers did not become rich from their innovative work.

Gates was one of few that saw the financial potential of the PC. He was very concerned about getting paid for software. His stated vision was “a computer on every desk in every home, running Microsoft software”. (the “running Microsoft software part” is often left out when quoted)

As time passed, it appeared that running Microsoft software on every PC was more important than anything else. Many innovative companies were driven out of business by Microsoft’s practice of “neutralization”. That is by Microsoft making an equivalent product that is “good enough” to compete. Then, by offering it cheaper or bundled free with other products. Control of the market became a higher priority than the product itself.

Neutralization may be a successful business strategy but is offensive to those who value technology first (true of many open source developers). Microsoft’s business practices during the nineties and early two thousands were strongly at odds with this group. However, back then few outside of a small technical community cared.

During my 18 years in software development, I recall many passionate technologists expressing hatred toward Microsoft. At the time I did not understand why. They would rant a little and then get back to work. They had no voice outside small circles of likeminded geeks.

Now, decades after hobbyists tinkered with the first PCs, computers are mainstream technology. It’s now cool to be a geek. With so many people interested in computers, a company could not get away with the tactics that Microsoft used in the past. In addition, new technology cannot be “good enough” to compete. It must be better, simple and intuitive.

Many who grew to dislike Microsoft are now in influential positions. In addition, the average person has a louder voice than ever before due to social media. This amplifies the memory of Microsoft’s past and contributes to current anti-Microsoft sentiment. It’s why Microsoft may seem unfairly judged at times.

Microsoft can neutralize their negative reputation but it will take time and consistent actions. I have to admit, when I first heard that Microsoft had an open source division, I assumed it was aimed to monitor, neutralize and thwart it.

In recent years Microsoft has taken steps that suggest it has a different attitude toward open source software. Examples include, supporting HTML 5 and JavaScript for creating Windows 8 apps, Linux virtual machines on Azure, jQuery support in Visual Studio, and contributing to open source projects and committees. Microsoft appears more open minded and humbled than in the past. I hope this is the new Microsoft because I have always valued technology first.


  1. I really enjoyed your thoughtful post Dan. I think that you said something critically true when you identified that Bill Gates was able to see technology shifts before they happen. What I wonder is will MS have the vision to stay competitive in the market? Do they have what it takes to keep the more sophisticated web user engaged enough to pay for software they can now access, to a certain degree, for free?