Another Step Towards Open Source: Bill Hilf Becomes Microsoft's GM of Server Strategy

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Watching Microsoft deal with open source's popularity kind of mirrors the Five Steps of Grief, normally applied when someone faces a terrible loss. Those steps are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.


We saw all of the stages initially: Microsoft blew off open source efforts; executives got mad and called it names; we had sites like "Get the Facts," which seemed to be a way to bargain out; depression was likely behind the lack of execution and some of the commentary in unauthorized internal Microsoft blog entries; and now Microsoft has reached acceptance, putting its lead open source guy in charge of server strategy.


We've already seen Redmond aggressively partner with open source companies and Novell, and despite a lot of speculation to the contrary, for the first time in the decade or so I've covered it actually may have a strong future as a result. That's saying a lot, as I've generally believed Novell's sustaining strategy was to make sure the next CEO is the one to finally turn out the lights.


What This Could Mean for Microsoft and Microsoft Customers ...


Unless he changes, Bill Hilf is a straight shooter, which is a somewhat unusual skill in technology marketing and in Microsoft marketing in particular. I think it will be incredibly refreshing to have someone like this on the messaging side as, for some time, I've felt Microsoft was out of control with regard to media spin. Few outside Microsoft actually believed much of it. This appeared true whether or not what Microsoft was saying was accurate and, I think, it had a lot to do with how few people trust the company today.


Rebuilding trust will be difficult, but it is substantially helped by the fact that Windows 2008 Server is not Windows Vista and represents one of the biggest surprises in the industry today. I mean if, 10 years ago, I would have said that Microsoft's next generation enterprise server was vastly more popular than its next generation enterprise desktop, folks would have likely laughed me out of the business. Yet, with companies in early beta deployment, that appears to be exactly the case as, even though Vista is almost a year old, it isn't getting the same aggressive attention.


Now it would be nice if both platforms got the same level of interest, and Vista SP1 may help out there, but Bill isn't on the desktop team -- he is pushing servers. But, if he can hold to being candid and straight, which he generally has been on Port 25, I think the practice could permeate through Microsoft and make it into a better company.


Death of Microsoft vs. Recovery


Let's be clear: I think those that commonly predict that Microsoft will die are fools. Microsoft is actually growing at a reasonable (14 pace) pace. Granted others are growing faster by gaming open source, but growing is not going out of business (though you could certainly argue Microsoft's market valuation could use some help).


Given that negative rate of revenue decline, Microsoft will cease being a company about the same time the sun stops burning. Detractors said the same thing about IBM, when it was in actual decline, and decades later IBM may no longer be dominant but it remains one of the most powerful companies in the world -- and probably the biggest Open Source supporter, which I find incredibly ironic.


Changing a company is tough, and my experience has been that it generally requires someone with enough authority and board support, and the global realization that the firm has serious problems, to get the job done. At HP, you can see this outcome of when this process actually works, and we've seen it go the other way a number of times.


Microsoft is showing strong signs of moderating and the people who made most of the questionable decisions I'm aware of in the last decade have moved on from the company. I'm thinking that a number of them likely aren't being missed right now. However, it is tough to change practices, and one new body in a critical role does not a new company make.


I'm a believer in fixing a company first, if it can be done, because taking a company out is not only impractical -- the collateral damage that happens as the company fails is unbelievably painful. However, a lot of us constantly wonder if Microsoft's other executives, and one in particular, will ever really step up to the plate. Bungie was another good example (Halo 3) of how things should be, but often aren't, at Microsoft.


Wrapping Up: Microsoft vs. Open Source


What I find interesting is that Microsoft seems to be honestly trying to move towards open source, both with staffing and investment, yet open source with initiatives like the new GPL http://www.news.com/GPL-3.0-A-bonfire-of-the-vanities/2010-7344_3-6047707.html3.0 seem to be moving even farther away from where Microsoft (and many developers) currently are. It is almost as if Microsoft has grasped that open source isn't going away and that it will have to work with it. Some of the more rabid open source folks are still caught between the first two grief stages, denial and anger.


Personally, I think a lot of folks will be happier with both sides if the current trend of cooperation accelerates. This is because neither is going away any time soon, and most of us just want everyone to work together so we can keep this mess of IT technologies working and have at least one weekend a month free to see if we are still married.


So, assuming Bill can stay true to his ideals (not the easiest thing to do when you move up in any large company), the end result should be both positive for us and Microsoft. This year I'll go for any win/win I can get.