On Microsoft’s Journey

Nearly a decade on from my original journey model, how far has Microsoft really come? Are they now aligned with their peers?

A decade ago, I wrote about the journey corporations take as they move from treating open source as a threat to embracing software freedom as a corporate philosophy within their business strategy. It wasn’t a perfect model, but it had plenty of resonance for me and many others at the time. The steps were:

  1. Open source as enemy – Attacking and ridiculing the idea of software freedom.
  2. Damage containment – Framing isolated actions as proof of support for the idea while diminishing other projects.
  3. Embrace and extend – Framing larger strategies as proof of embrace while mapping the semantics to deal with inconvenient dissonance.
  4. A change of executive direction – new leadership or direction results in executive air-cover.
  5. Exploratory opening – As business units adapt models, practical barriers to community are removed.
  6. General opening – Projects are expected to switch to open source, exceptions need justifying.
  7. Embrace of software freedom – software freedom is a core company philosophy expressed in all actions.

At the time in 2011, Microsoft was still mostly in stage 1 of the model, with a few groups at stages 2 and 3 and constant turnover of the person hired to be the front-person for open source. It even extended to standards – I had watched as Microsoft, unable to see how to embrace ODF and win through collaboration, instead burned the reputation of ECMA and ISO forcing through OOXML and creating an eternal maintenance burden for themselves.

Over the following decade, they have gradually progressed along the line to embracing software freedom, reaching a bold stage 4 when Satya Nadella was appointed and stage 5 with the partnership with Red Hat. With the acquisition of Github they seemed likely to have reached stage 6, especially when they joined OIN as I’d long proposed, but for me the final confirmation was the comment by Microsoft president Brad Smith:

“Microsoft was on the wrong side of history when open source exploded at the beginning of the century, and I can say that about me personally,”

Brad Smith, cited by The Verge

Of course, the reality is not the words spoken at media-friendly events but the actions taken in private (as I am currently finding with big players in the mobile industry). In many ways, Microsoft was the most direct and honest of the big technology-sector players a decade ago. IBM was busy monetising software patents in private while lauding openness and sharing in public; Oracle was declaring its commitment to openness and even taking the word for the name of its developer conference while doubling down on lock-in.

Microsoft just stuck to the obvious truth that they hated Linux — and by association the whole open source movement — and said it openly. Behind the scenes, all the tech businesses were taking what they could, contributing what they had to and attacking what they couldn’t, but Microsoft was honest about it. That honesty bought them deep hatred from some advocates that even today is unquenchable despite the growing evidence it’s residual bigotry. My concern for those who say they still can’t trust Microsoft now is more that they believe that can trust its peers.

So does this change mean they have really progressed to stage 6? Yes, I think it does, even if there are residual pockets of the old Microsoft. The reality of their cloud strategy and the market it addresses has made the softer tactics of adoption, engagement and collaboration outweigh fierce closed competitive brilliance and embrace-extend-extinguish as their weapons of choice.

Speaking to friends who now find themselves at Microsoft and at Github, it’s clear that today’s Microsoft is not the same company that used to burn out a new open source front-man every two years. This Microsoft wants to collaborate, to lead as a member rather than as an entryist, to do it right rather than just make it look OK. The new blood in Azure and Github has been given permission to tell the old guard to make the new strategy succeed or be wound up, and it’s working. Looks like it’s so effective that IBM wants to copy it.

So why have I not ranked them at stage 7 yet? I’m still not convinced they are there. The test for stage 7 is whether a company picks winning strategies that advance the liberties of others, even if they are not the biggest wins. Given two open source strategies, one that embodies software freedom for others and one that makes Microsoft apparently win more, I wait to be convinced they would stand up for the liberties of others over advantaging Microsoft. Maybe it’s already happening and I just haven’t noticed – do tell me! I am pretty sure an opportunity will come along soon if it isn’t.

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