And you thought the Microsoft/open source divide was political...

by Matt Asay

I posted what I thought was an innocuous post on Bill Gates' comments on the superiority of Vista over Mac OS X, and spent the rest of the weekend approving comments. I've never had so many comments on a blog post. Traffic, already quite healthy, went up 388%.


Because Mac people and Windows people seem to have more mutual scorn than open source and Windows people have for each other. Just one more reason to believe that open source is an opportunity for Microsoft, not a threat. Macs and Windows are separate entities, though virtualization is changing that. Open source and Microsoft need not be.

All that said, I do think we need to remove the political and/or religious vitriol from the discussion. I lean pretty far to the "Left" on licensing issues - I prefer the GPL to the BSD, for example. But a license is just a license. Microsoft could use OSI-approved licenses as easily as it does its Shared Source licenses. It chose not to for a range of reasons (mostly out of caution, in my view, which caution should dissipate over time). But it could.

A license should begin the conversation, not end it. The real conversation is about customer value, which really is about service. You can roll some of that service into the code itself, as Jason Matusow once told me is one of Microsoft's goals. That makes sense, and I think it's good for customers, but customer value will always be more than just code.

Regardless, that's what the debate should be about. What license/software/service/etc. drives the most customer value? Not whether my Mac is prettier (it is). :-)


2007-02-06 07:07:32
You suggest that MS could use an OSI license (true) but chose not to out of caution. I think that might be the wrong motivation, based on Mr. Gates' personal history. Since his first commercial venture (BASIC for the Altair, IIRC) Mr. Gates has been violently opposed to the precepts of Open Source, and though his views have probably changed in the last 30+ years, I suspect that he would still object to an OSI license. The Shared Source license is profoundly restrictive, and (I think) shows, along with the MS EULAs of the past and present the desire of MS to contain and control the user.

BTW, I am aware that 1) Mr. Gates is taking a less active role in MS' business - but I bet if Mr. Balmer suggested an OSI license there would be a compelling phone call double-quick. 2) Licenses are written by lawyers - but again, lawyers are generally using their skills to express the desires of their clients, not directing strategy.

2007-02-06 11:03:11
I remember when I first started in this field. The mantra at sales meetings and even college courses was the same. To summarize, find out the user's problem(s), then find or write the software solution and purchase the hardware to run the software. Customer value was the solution to the customer's problem. Simple.

In all these discussions of late (the past 5 years, at least), the discussion seems to start with the operating system (O/S), and then the hardware (and then the user?). And as these "new solutions" have evolved, they have brought with them as many or more problems than they've solved. One has to wonder if the savings are really offsetting the costs, or has technology simply created big business, as we know it today.

Nowadays, companies keep an army of IT people on staff to administer, manage, and support these new "high tech" solutions. One could argue that Microsoft has created more jobs in the IT industry than IBM ever did when mainframes ruled.

What problems is Vista solving that couldn't be solved with XP? What problems is Vista solving that a Mac can't solve? What problems are either of them solving that can't be solved by a mainframe? But there I go, enamored by the technology instead of the reason for it; problems that need to be solved.

Remember what the news told us was driving the Rover on Mars for NASA? I heard them tell us it was off-the-shelf game software written in Java. NASA had a problem and they found a solution, and apparently it was a pretty darned good solution.

Users have used whatever's available to solve their problem, regardless of licensing or even cost. But that being said, GPL licensing and open source does seem to provide the best possible environment for solving problems the quickest (just look at open source release cycles versus Windows release cycle).

As for intellectual property, what about the waste of human intelligence re-inventing the same functionality 5 different proprietary ways by 5 different software companies, all for the sake of business and the bottom-line? (Five was an arbitrary number to make a point, but at one time there were that many different spreadsheets on the market at a time, which all ran on a X86 platform.)

If we don't get back to using technology for solving real and pressing problems, such as global warming, then all this discussion of licensing, intellectual property, etc., will be for naught.

It won't be Microsoft or Apple or Symantec or McAfee that tackle such daunting scientific problems. Be interesting to look back on today's discussion 50 years from now and see what it all really means.

Chris Tyler
2007-02-10 07:15:41
You note that "A license should begin the conversation, not end it. The real conversation is about customer value, which really is about service."

I would counter that a license is (in part) about who can provide that service. When a company builds on open source software, service vendors can compete on the basis of merit; but when a company builds on proprietary software, all of the vendors except one are at a disadvantage.

Even the largest consulting and service providers (think IBM, Accenture, ...) has their hands tied if a customer encounters a bug in a critical proprietary program (Windows, Oracle, SAP). They can try to lean on the vendor, and they'll have a bit of leverage because of their size, but all they can do is lean. But if the solution is based on open source, they can go ahead and *fix* the problem -- and if they don't, a new service provider will be taking their place pronto.