The press is abuzz with speculation about Bill Gates' "impending" departure from Microsoft, the company he founded. As InfoWorld Editor in Chief Steve Fox rightly points out, no other company could announce executive turnover in two years' time and have it called news. What lends gravitas to this nonevent, however, is an idea that's been growing within the industry and that's beginning to find its voice: It's time for change.
Gone are the days of skyrocketing stock prices at Microsoft. The grand vision of the company's next-generation OS has proved too ambitious, with Windows Vista missing deadline after deadline. Customer frustration with security flaws and lock-in tactics is growing. Microsoft's attempts at software as a service have been largely stillborn. And throughout it all, Microsoft executives maintain that the biggest threat is ... a search engine company?
Plainly, the real problem is that the old ideas just aren't working. Microsoft has been phenomenally successful as a software company, but as the years have gone by, it has increasingly struggled to adapt to change. The Internet changed computing in fundamental ways, yet by Bill Gates' own admission Microsoft was slow to react.
Now the software business itself is changing, and central to that change is open source. Yet Microsoft has remained heavily entrenched in its software business model: selling shrink-wrapped software through the VAR channel. Other companies, such as IBM, Novell, and Sun, have adapted to different models. Open source isn't a threat to them; rather, they embrace it. In a sense, the fact that Microsoft feels so threatened by open source exposes its vulnerability. The company has shown every sign of stumbling again. Could a change in leadership bring it to surer footing?
In an interview with eWeek, Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft's servers and tools business, seemed to suggest Microsoft's traditional animosity to open source might be cooling. "We are open to ways of working with the open source community broadly, and even in the GPL [General Public License] space we are trying to find ways in which we can build bridges to GPL," he said. However, he added, "The bridge has to be carefully constructed."
Open source developers typically scoff at such statements. If Microsoft wants to build bridges to open source, why not open its protocols? Why not support public standards, such as OpenDocument? Why not comply with antitrust judgments, both here and in Europe Why not -- you know -- build bridges?