Microsoft opens .Net but misses the point with mobile

Unprecedented change continues to flow from Microsoft. But does the company really 'get it'?

In my last column, I observed that it's possible that Satya Nadella may be able to lead Microsoft out of the desert it has been wandering (albeit profitably) under the leadership of his predecessors. His willingness to allow Microsoft to return to its roots providing software for other platforms, coupled with creating a leadership ethos that apologizes for and reverses actions that are legal but wrong, suggested to me he's already able to devise a counterculture that might win.

Is this week's news in the same class? In many ways it's far bigger: open source for .Net and $0 pricing for mobile Windows. But once again it's a mixed story -- milestones marking the road rather than the destination.

[ Microsoft and open source: Two steps forward, one step back | Microsoft adds .Net compiler to open source offerings | Track trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

First, the win: Many of us in the open source community had long wondered why Microsoft failed to leverage the power of the collective for its developer marketing. Open source tools, frameworks, and libraries resonate with developers and liberate them to innovate, contributing that innovation back as they go. As they innovate, they create a rich market to monetize. As an example, I helped Sun open Java in 2006; since then, we've seen the core code community around OpenJDK blossom and grow.

Open-sourcing Java gave it a new lease on life. Why, then, did Microsoft insist on keeping .Net closed? My guess is it was a matter of leadership philosophy. Plenty of staff in Microsoft understood the power of open source to harness developer passion. It had to be a senior hand holding them back.

They're no longer under that restraint. Microsoft has announced the formation of the .Net Foundation and the hosting of 24 projects within it. They include the .Net compiler suite Roslyn -- under the liberal Apache license -- plus some from independent developer Xamarin. While the administrative details of the foundation are yet to be determined (curiously, Microsoft did not use the Outercurve Foundation -- its own creation -- as a host), the very existence of this initiative screams of new leadership.

On the flip side, there's news that the mobile versions of Windows will be free of charge for small screens. This sounds like a game-changing strategic shift as well, and it is undoubtedly a sign of new leadership. But it misses the mark -- it's not open source. That matters because Microsoft might decide to charge for future updates (the "first hit is free" model initially proposed by Bill Gates in China). It matters because the license terms still restrict how you can use the software.

Those details are important in the mobile and Internet-of-things markets. There's so much going on that the freedom to innovate is the No. 1 priority for every player with a future. Any time you need to ask for permission before you can innovate, you're using the wrong tools.

This is the great value of open source, as well as open data and open standards. Open source licenses give unlimited rights to use the software they cover. No one is counting copies or determining the screen size to check the restrictive license applies. There's no EULA to make sure customers comply with your master's terms. You have complete flexibility, and you didn't have to ask anyone's permission to get it.

In other words, the price doesn't matter that much if the rest of the permission-seeking restrictions apply. The mobile industry is already chafing at the control Apple and Google apply to their respective walled gardens. Even Android -- as open source as seems possible in the current market environment -- is burdened with market mechanisms that manufacturers like Samsung resent and resist. What it needs is more space to innovate, not a first-hit-is-free introduction to a different master.

What's amazing, though, is that new leadership is unleashing a latent desire for change across Microsoft. If this carries on, the world of software is set for a season of disruption. And if Microsoft truly embraces open source collaboration, it could be a trigger for innovation from everyone. Permissionless flexibility is what builds markets today.

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