Reading between the lines with Bill Hilf: Microsoft must really be hurting

I look at Microsoft's quarterly numbers, and the company seems to be doing well. Its two monopolies are firmly intact, and it's well on the way to building a third and fourth in Exchange and Sharepoint. Of course, there are a range of reasons to believe Microsoft is limping toward stagnation, that it's losing its fervor, but I think it has plenty of years left in it. All of which makes it hard to believe Bill Hi

I look at Microsoft's quarterly numbers, and the company seems to be doing well. Its two monopolies are firmly intact, and it's well on the way to building a third and fourth in Exchange and Sharepoint. Of course, there are a range of reasons to believe Microsoft is limping toward stagnation, that it's losing its fervor, but I think it has plenty of years left in it.

All of which makes it hard to believe Bill Hilf's recent comments in the Asian press. In case you thought that Microsoft was winning in the war against open source, you just need to read Bill HIlf's quotes to see that Microsoft clearly feels that it's losing. Or is in trouble. Big time. You don't go as negative on Apple as Gates has unless you're worried that you're losing. You don't bash open source as being...just like Microsoft unless you're worried that it is racing ahead.

Bill, looking for the soundbite that he got, says:

The Free Software movement is dead. Linux doesn't exist in 2007. Even Linus has got a job today. [Bill is trying to] be descriptive and intelligent in giving people an understanding of open source and debunk a lot of the mythology around open source.

I'm glad that Bill clarified this, because it sure sounded like he was trying to repeat his company's FUD from circa 2003. I know and like Bill quite a bit. He's much smarter than this. What Bill is trying to say, of course, is that the world of open source has changed. It's not (if it ever was) about free love. Rather, it's about code and cash.

For Bill to go out on the stump and make the kinds of statements he makes in this press interview, I'm guessing that Microsoft fears commercial open source much more than it ever feared community open source.

Community open source is scary on one level because Microsoft can't effectively market (read: lie) against it. It just keeps going. Microsoft also can't sue it (or threaten to do so in the hope that some bedraggled knucklehead will play dupe for you).

Microsoft used to think it could compete with commercial open source more effectively than community open source because it looked more like Microsoft. Same general goal(make money by serving customers).

As it turns out, open source proves to be a more efficient means to that end, which must make Microsoft terribly nervous. After all, if companies actually start delivering service to customers, rather than simply software, what will happen to Microsoft's monopolies that deliver little incremental value to anyone but Microsoft?

Hence, Bill tries to confuse the issue:

He said that most customers run a distribution - RedHat, Novell, Suse or Mandriva. Most of the work on maintaining the Linux kernel is done by developers working for these distributions, he noted,

"They are full-time employees, with 401K stock options. Some work for IBM or Oracle. What does that mean? It means that Linux doesn't exist any more in 2007. There is no free software movement. If someone says Linux is about Love, Peace and Harmony, I would tell them to do their research. There is no free software movement any more. There is big commercial [firms] like IBM and there is small commercial [firms] like Ubuntu," he said.

Somehow, someone at Microsoft got into its collective head that "commercial" = "inimical to open source." It's unfortunate that this should be false, because so many Microsofties delude themselves with this fiction, but I'm afraid it is. It's also unfortunate that Bill would pretend that paying someone money would somehow dampen their enthusiasm for the ethos of open source. He apparently has never talked with open source developers at Red Hat, Novell, IBM, MySQL, etc.

Or Microsoft, for that matter. Perhaps Bill didn't get the memo that his own company is desperately trying to be more like open source in the way it develops software. Funny thing, truth. It's not always on your side....

Speaking from my own experience, the list of companies who buy into open source precisely because it's open source is long and getting longer by the day. Open source is not an afterthought to their purchasing decision - it is the crux of that decision.

Of course Bill knows this. Which makes this public posturing the contrary all the more disingenuous and unworthy of Bill.

Bill, and Microsoft, are evidently struggling with how to play nicely. Again, this is surprising to me since I think the company is, generally speaking, on the top of its products game. What seems to be causing the company so much angst is not product-based competition but rather business model competition, In that department, it is clearly going to be a loser (as will Oracle, SAP, etc.) if open source continues to take off. If customers come to expect service for their dollars instead of shelfware, every proprietary software vendor loses.

Microsoft, for its part, has long done a good job of driving "service" into the software, making complex software easy to use. This is why Microsoft continues to gain at Oracle's and IBM's expense in databases, applications, etc.

But it has not yet gained at open source's expense. Reading between the lines of Bill's statements, I'm guessing the company isn't too happy about that. In response, the best I can offer is,

Get over it.

100% of the Global 2000 is running Linux. Hordes are flocking to open source middleware, databases, and applications. Microsoft can either profit from this, or it can continue to try to fight it.

Not that fighting it will do much at this point. It's like gravity. It hurts to fall.

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