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BLOG: Bye-bye Ballmer, hello open source? Microsoft's upcoming options

Simon Phipps | Sept. 2, 2013
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:

  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.

Consider some of the data points:

  • Microsoft Open Technologies is now incorporated as a wholly owned but legally distinct subsidiary. At present, it offers little more than a liability firewall for the corporation, isolating Microsoft from patent and licensing risk, but it is strongly staffed and has high potential.
  • After a rocky start as the window dressing for Microsoft's CodePlex forge, the now-renamed Outercurve Foundation is gathering momentum and offers a fine vehicle for difference-making projects once it has gained the trust of sufficient developers. With the move of Jim Jagielski from Apache to CodePlex (closely followed by the appointment of Microsoft Open Technologies staffer Ross Gardler as president of Apache), there's potential for bridges to be built through the legacy of this organization.
  • Much of the stasis for open source at the company was the result of Microsoft's hard-baked executive portfolio. But as Sean Michael Kerner notes, a big slice of executive leadership has left Microsoft in recent years, including Ozzie, Elop, Muglia, and Sinofsky:
    In the past three years, the executives who ran the Windows, Server and Business divisions have left. Both Muglia and Sinofsky worked at Microsoft for decades shaping the strategy and culture that enabled the company to dominate in the desktop and server arenas. Both are gone, and now soon so is Ballmer.
    A majority of that executive bench has quit (or been helped to quit) in the last few years as Microsoft's board has presumably delivered ultimatum after ultimatum to Ballmer. Unwittingly, he has cleared out a lot of the deadwood blocking the stream.


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