Nixon Goes to China

by MichaelF on February 13, 2007 11:36pm

At least four academic research papers in the last 12 months have observed IT vendors appear to have made investments in open source software in order to combine open source assets with their proprietary software portfolios or other revenue drivers-- using open source to strengthen a “value chain” that might extend across other software products, hardware, and consulting services.   The largest publicly stated investment in open source—by IBM—has been observed to be potentially related to its lack of a successful x86 operating system(1), failure to write successful web server(2), as an anti-Microsoft competitive tactic(3), and to position its proprietary AIX (UNIX) operating system as “the easiest and most compatible upgrade path for Linux.” (4)

Matt Asay recently blogged that “IBM has been given a lot of love for its open source support” but he seems to agree with the idea that “like any good corporate citizen” where that support starts and stops may be explained in terms of its fiduciary obligation to its shareholders.  –Or, as the author of one recent study published out of Harvard Business School states, positioning open source as a “complementary” asset to existing “proprietary” assets per “the old saw of the razor/razor blade business model.”

Matt previously commented on this same Harvard study, lamenting “I am surprised at how little creativity apparently goes into thinking through complements and substitutes, and making open source bets accordingly.”

To a point, I’ll defend publicly financed corporations in general—including Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and Novell—since their employees do indeed have a fiduciary obligation to look out for the interests of the company’s shareholders.  Thus the bounds for creativity are not wide open, and the more “unusual” some sort of “bet” appears, the harder it can be to determine whether that bet is complementary to the core assets of any company.  But here’s the beauty of the fact that here at Microsoft we have a different business model from IBM or Oracle or Red Hat.  It means we have different opportunities to do something that makes business sense and, in this case, supports open source community-driven development.

I won’t argue whether it means we at the OSS Lab @ MS are more creative or not, but I will trumpet that fact that we have teamed up with Paula Bach, a PhD Candidate at the Computer-Supported Collaboration and Learning Lab in the Penn State Center for Human Computer Interaction and Professor John Carroll, a giant in the  human-computer interaction (HCI) field, to present a special interest group (SIG) on “Usability and Free/Libre/Open Source Software SIG: HCI Expertise and Design Rationale” at CHI 2007.

Why? Usability is perceived as a challenging areas for OSS development.  Usability is tough for any type of development, but if you have capital to invest and the organizational capacity to it, there is a rich body of knowledge about a systematic research & development (R&D) process—Microsoft follows one which is, IMO, quite impressive, rigorous—and  tough from a developer perspective.  But if you step back from the term “open source,” you realize that any software production endeavor that is not equipped to apply those commercial best practices—like, hint, hint:

    • Many of Microsoft’s 700,000 plus partner businesses worldwide, many of which are small businesses that build packaged or customized software applications
    • Tens of millions of end-user developers who collaborate in a very open-sourcey way in places like the Excel Programming Newsgroup
    • Hundreds (and more every day) of community-driven open source projects on Codeplex

By now you may see a pattern: increasing the ability of small groups of people to collaborate to produce better applications using platform technologies like Windows, Office, and .NET—whether they consider themselves “open source” or not (like end-user programmers trying to solve a problem or a half-dozen folks trying to run a traditional software business) is, I would argue, uniquely consistent with Microsoft’s business model.  Paula will be joining us as a lab intern and we hope her learnings about HCI in community-driven development will lead to enhacements for Codeplex (and maybe elsewhere as well).

There’s a saying: “Only Nixon could go to China.”  It refers to the idea that only a politician perceived as a hardliner could take on tough issues (--Nixon was regarded as a staunch anti-Communist) that would expose someone with a less extreme reputation to politically crippling accusations of “selling out.”  It was also re-purposed in Star Trek VI to explain why Captain Kirk was chosen as a key player in the Klingon-Federation peace process, which is the primary reason I had it on my mind.  (I am not sure whether I should be impressed, feel validated, or be frightened that a Wikipedia entry actually documents all this.)

If any company is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as = Nixon to OSS = China or =Kirk to OSS=Klingons, as of today it would seem it is Microsoft.  I’m not going China but I am going to CHI.  And I think this type of “mission” will be one step toward a uniquely mutually valuable relationship between community-driven development projects (of all types, including open source projects) and Microsoft.

I think the community is getting creative about this opportunity (including people who deeply study OSS development like Paula and Jack, without whom this wouldn’t have happened)—but get ready, so are we.

Warp six, Mr. Sulu.

(The four papers I referenced, most of which are available online, are:
(1)    Samuelson, IBM’s Pragmatic Embrace of Open Source
(2)    Mann, The Commercialization of Open Source Software: Do Property Rights Still Matter?
(3)    Fitzgerald, The Transformation of Open Source Software
(4)    Iansiti, The Business of Free Software: Enterprise Incentives, Investment, and Motivation in the Open Source Community, )

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