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.

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:

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  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.

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