Has Microsoft Lost Its War on Open Source?

Microsoft's mixed messages may hurt Microsoft more than open source

But cases like the TomTom suit and puzzling public-relations efforts -- like the release last year of a case study showing how purchasing Microsoft products instead of open source products gives customers a better return on their investment -- continue to show the company's conflicted attitude.

Such mixed messages may hurt Microsoft. "Microsoft has enough smart people at the company to know that the longer they delay taking advantage of open source, the more they jeopardize their position," says Andrew Updegrove, a partner and intellectual property attorney with Gesmer Updegrove and an outspoken advocate of open source.

He says Microsoft has an "unnatural advantage" in the marketplace because of the depth and the breadth of its customer base. "But they're going to lose that advantage because they are going to be too far behind everyone else in design, developers, and strategic thinking," he says. "They need to reverse polarity as soon as possible."

The popularity of Microsoft's software has always been driven by software developers, and Microsoft still has a loyal developer following. However, many developers prefer to work with open source technologies for a slew of reasons -- among them they don't have to wait for updates from a vendor to make bug fixes, and the fact that many open source tools are freely available as part of community projects.

If Microsoft continues to flip-flop on open source, it could stymie its ability to keep developers in its corner, as well as hurt the company's ability to keep up with a rapidly innovating market. "There is a constant demand for better ways to do things, better ways to compete, and the innovation that meets this demand typically never comes from a large organization," says Joe Lindsay, vice president of engineering for interactive media firm Brand Affinity Technologies and a longtime user of both proprietary and open source software. "Innovation happens in smaller organizations, and those organizations use the tools that give them the most options, power, or freedom to innovate. These ideas used to be commercialized by large companies, but that is no longer necessary for virtual products like software."

Lindsay says that Microsoft's strength has always been making innovation accessible to the average user rather than being a great innovator itself. But continuing to keep a tight hold on licensing its code could weaken even that strength, he says. "Microsoft does not sell software that lets folks freely innovate; it sells software that lets folks innovate after paying Microsoft for Microsoft software and requires users of the innovation to pay Microsoft as well," he says. "It is a great annuity for Microsoft, but a cumbersome liability for the innovator and his users."

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