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

Rob Enderle

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.

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Oct 10, 2007 10:24 AM parvenu74 parvenu74  says:
So Microsoft is warming up to open source... what's the point? Are we going to see source code released for IIS 7 or all of Windows anytime soon? I don't think so. About the only team that's done anything like that is Scott Guthrie's boys on the .NET team, and even then the released code wasn't under an "open" license. MS has no need to "go open source" anytime soon because their competitors simply aren't in a position to force them. Reply
Oct 10, 2007 10:41 AM Greg Wallace Greg Wallace  says:
Rob,How does the thrust of this post - that Microsoft is taking the high road (as compared with Groklaw et al) and reconciling with Open Source - square with Ballmer's latest claims that companies using Red Hat will have to compensate Microsoft? Seems to me like that's exactly the opposite of what you're talking about.ThanksGreg Reply
Oct 10, 2007 11:26 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Differance between the old guard and the new. Steve also makes regular comments indicating Apple and Google will fail. If Microsoft were failing like Apple and Google are I'll bet his board would be much happier with him... :) CEOs often surround themselves with people who agree and are increasingly shielded from real world events. His view of the world as CEO is based on a world created for him. That's one of the biggest problems with that job and it goes way behond just Microsoft. Overall I'm talking about change as a process and this as a trend, not a destination that has already been reached. Good question, thanks! Reply
Oct 10, 2007 2:57 PM Robert Robert  says:
Thanks Rob. I really liked this post - informative and insightful - and if you catch any flack from zealots, you've already identified 5 steps of grief of which at least one of them is where they are coming from. Think nothing of it... (I only write this after the beating you took on Blu-Ray-which you didn't deserve and were extremely childish at most).I find your comments on what MS is doing with Server 2008 and open source initiatives to be intriguing. It sparks optimism for a much-needed boost in the MS wings right now.At least after the years of enterprise effort experience, MS seems to be maturely moving in the right direction. Reply
Oct 10, 2007 4:30 PM len len  says:
Listening is everything. Timing is everything else.MS moves slightly behind the trends because that is where a very large gazelle has to be when running to stay on its feet. This isn't managed. Social physics is the intelligence in that dynamic system. Reply
Oct 10, 2007 7:07 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Robert:Thanks for the nice comments! I agree, although slower than I think most of us would like, Microsoft is generally moving in the right direction. The difficulty will be keeping them pointed that way and lighting a fire under their collective posteriors. Big companies tend to gain, internally, a sense of entailment and bureaucracy which often overcomes their natural size and resource advantages effectively eliminating much needed agility. I have yet to see a firm truly address this, HP is doing the best job right now of any of the large firms I monitor in terms of fixing a massive problem but they are far from done. Len:The concept of social physics sounds much more scientific than I think you intended. The reality is that social engineering is still more magic than science today, particularly in companies, largely because of the efforts to assure everyone is treated equally (which really never truly happened and is probably not only impossible it isnt even practical). The idea that a company like Microsoft cant run ahead of the pack is certainly historically accurate as market leaders, in terms of market share, seldom lead in terms of agility or technology. Even Google, now that they are a market leader themselves, lags in some ways behind smaller challengers. Still, this isnt to say a big company cant lead. HP, for instance, is leading in design efforts in a number of segments (large format printing, deployed touch interfaces, blade PCs, gaming desktop PCs, etc.) showing that it is possible to lead in part. Moving Hilf up was done by intent, however the motives could be mixed as Ive seen moves like this done to cause someone to fail who has become a pain and too visible to eliminate directly. Well hope that isnt the case here, but corporate politics in any big company rival to a great degree what can happen in government and Hilf is not known for being particularly political, something he will, unfortunately, likely have to address if he wants to be successful in his new role. Thanks for the post! Reply
Oct 11, 2007 12:45 PM len len  says:
End of the day, so a little digression on the topic, Rob. BTW: MS can still lead. Note that in all the discussion of virtual worlds these days, MS is being strangely quiet and we know they aren't being idle. They have become the wild card. Fascinating to watch because they have an opportunity to take all the jacks with one toss of the ball if they think this through.Anywho..I think you understand the made up 'social physics' term for what it describes: a slightly mindless bumping of forces of individuals, then herds, then herds of herds, and so on. Once a company has multiple products and opportunties, the only thing that is reliably predictable is it will slow down and make mistakes at a larger scale.On the other hand, there will be bright spots in all that gray that will do some things incredibly well as long as they aren't required to liase with every other project. IME, where companies lose it is by trying to get synergies across the product lines where none exist organically (as in shared code libraries). It becomes a bean counter's delight on the books, but in the code trenches, the endless negotiations become endless meetings become endless processes and finally, a deadlock as bad and for the same reasons as a database deadlocks: waiting for a function that is waiting for a function that is waiting for a function, and no one willing to admit it. It used to be my job to go from desk to desk kicking tires to find out why a project wasn't moving or an answer wasn't returning; think of it as being a professional garbage collector in the OOP sense.The answer was almost always the same: one person who believes some0ne who can't understand their highly technical answer isn't worth a simpler explanation, and another person who believes if it can't be explained simply it isn't worth knowing. Meanwhile, everyone else waits. Those are the dynamical systems that make up social physics. In social physics (and this is true by actual research), the older the social connection, the more permanent and the more powerful.After a time the only way to get the company to reform is to burn it to the ground because the social system is in full lock-up and lock out. Nothing internally moves fast enough to keep up with the market and nothing external is allowed to enter and live long enough to have an effect.That is why they fire sale those companies to the equity firms. Reply
Oct 11, 2007 3:21 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
You probably should keep a close eye on what they are doing with Silverlight. But yes they are strangely quiet with regard the the 3D web. Unfortunatly, as far as my own experience is concerned, you're generally right. My belief is that it doesn't have to go this way but I don't have any really good examples (maybe HP will be one) where this hasn't been the case. IBM kind of came back but its never been as agile as it once was or needs to be. I think it is possible to reform something without torching it first, just wish I had an example there that path had been truly successful.Nice post, well argued! Reply
Oct 12, 2007 10:58 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Looks like you may have popped an extra letter into the link as it appears to be http://www.web3d.org/ . Thanks for pointing me in the right direction, appreciate the help and comments!Took a look at "River of Life" looked like it was fun to do. http://home.hiwaay.net/~cbullard/rol/TheRiverofLife.wrlThanks again for the post! Reply
Oct 12, 2007 6:17 PM James K. Lowden James K. Lowden  says:
"Microsoft seems to be honestly trying to move towards open source...."Yes, and the zodiac seems to foretell the future. Did Microsoft stop trying to squelch Samba and ODF while I wasn't looking? Name just one free software project that Microsoft has actively assisted -- i.e. provided documentation or other technical support to -- and you'll change my mind. Until then, deeds speak louder than words. Reply
Oct 12, 2007 6:32 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
I believe they view Samba and ODF as competing technologies and that would likely remain true regardless of whether they were Open Source or not. Is there a rule in Open Source that says you can't be against a competing offering? Is Red Hat Pro SuSe? Not sure what you mean by "Free" in this context. My core point is the lead Open Source guy at Microsoft is being promoted into a stronger policy position and that moves them closer to Open Source because these policies set corporate behavior. Also, this is a path not a destination. If you are going to argue I'm wrong you have to point to something that either indicates they are moving in the wrong direction or not moving at all, I pointed to something at indicated positive movement but agree they haven't arrived yet and that there are folks in Microsoft who likely disagree with the direction. Nature of a company, even within folks that support Open Source there are a wide range of positions and opinions and you have to be able step back, even there, and look at broad trends for direction.Some people will likely freeze on an opinion of a company at any time and not realize that companies can change a lot based on who is running them. And the CEO is not really the person actually setting most of the policies that define corporate behavior, in fact the CEO sets very few. Something to think about. Reply
Oct 12, 2007 6:33 PM len len  says:
Deeds indeeds.I'm watching the 3D worlds space, obviously. If IBM et al succeed in making a market there for business applications, MS has to go there. Given all the grief they and Intel get in Europe over their proprietary viewers and 'monopolism', they could choose to join the web3dc and use X3D, have a real ISO standard, and hold back the complaints of the European companies that so far are smashing the American vendors. It's cheap entry, guaranteed results, and they become the good guys just as IBM is leading the effort to proprietarize the market by confusing open standards with open source. In one toss, they get market cred, open up to the other 3D apps such as collaborative 3D design (see the Airbus system), and give IBM a nasty smack in the nose for what they did to them over ODF/OOXML. ODF and OOXML are examples of dodo standards: standardizing at the point of species extinction. MS doesn't need to own more loss leaders. Let IBM and Linden Labs, Kaneva, whoever absorb those costs for 'virtual worlds'. Pick up the standard and a company that already uses a technology that works on ANY application of 3D on the Web. Sorry, James, but you may have to accept the fact that this is a competitive business and IBM's dysfunctional inability to play ethically in all markets opens their ODF efforts up to honest criticism and not just a little get-even. Reply
Oct 12, 2007 6:50 PM Robert Robert  says:
I follow up on Lens comment about the quietness of MS and agree with him as well as your response Rob. It is strangely quiet. Depending on who you are, you either like the anticipation of when all hell breaks loose, or you get really uncomfortable with the surrealness of the wait. (Some of us just go on vacation and avoid the media ;-)Focusing on your article, the fact that MS has put Bill Hilf in charge of Server 2008, to me indicates that MS 1) takes serious the sentiments among customers concerning interoperability and 2) is going to make sure that they play heavyweight in the open source arena. I mean by this that although comments like James focuses on existing open source projects and how MS has done nothing for them, I personally dont believe MS has any real objective in embracing open source other than to insure that they stay interoperable and therefore keep their customer base happy. I dont believe MS will do anything in the open source community that would be shooting themselves. In other words, they arent going to throw themselves behind what is a competitor. Rather, I believe they are seriously planning strategies to keep firm control of their destiny while accepting that market rumblings towards open source are legitimate concerns to take seriously, and use their weight to make sure that things go the direction they want it to. Theyll be open enough to make it count for themselves.In either event, I believe I might take vacation and see if the world has changed at all when I get back! Reply
Oct 12, 2007 7:05 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Robert: Agree a vacation sounds wonderful to me and, sometimes, it takes stepping away from all of this to come back and see things as they are and not as they were. Im as guilty as many for often not seeing change until it is obvious to almost everyone else because, at times, Im too close to the subject. Agree, Microsoft is trying to bend with the wind but resisting anything that will make them more vulnerable than they already are. Companies have a responsibility to survive and increase stakeholder value, Microsoft is struggling a bit with the latter. The difficulty for the firm is that it has become so complex that it has lost a lot of agility and, from the outside, often appears incredibly inconsistent. Len: Im putting the 3D web on my list of big things for 2008 and view IBMs investment with Linden Labs in line with what an investment would have been in AOL in 1994 with a goal of being relevant to the then growing Internet. As a learning exercise it could have value but SecondLife should be trivialized within a few short years if, as I expect, the 3D Web grows up like the 2D Web did. Agree there is a huge opportunity for Microsoft to get ahead of this, take what their current beliefs with regard to interoperability and assure a very strong position as the 3D Web matures. I dont know enough about web3dc or X3D yet to create a position on whether that will be the path but hope to in the next few weeks, but from what I currently know (which is very little) your suggestion feels right to me. Reply
Oct 12, 2007 7:37 PM len len  says:
Have a chat with Rita Turkowski at some point. She is the executive director of the Web3DC and has a good show about it. See http://www.web3dc.org and read some of the announcements. Notice the breadth of applications and which companies are well positioned. Today the one to watch is BitManagement based on the strength of their implementations and experience. Octaga is coming on fast. ParallelGraphics has settled on the technical information industry but they have a deep bench.The point I try to make is that one can choose a viewer/server farm as the platform, or choose a language that is IP-free and sell the rest. They can do that open source or closed source. This strategy preserves the most options given churn as well as keeps the compact with the authors that when a farm goes belly up, the content can migrate to another.That was the challenge to OOXML: not really portable. With X3D, it really is. The world I put up a month ago has code in it that is over twelve years old and has been through half a dozen systems, but it still works. The ultimate test of lifecycle is to survive one intact. The big advantages of the junkyard dogs of VRML is they can prove their systems interoperate to the degree reasonable to expect, their standards really are standards, and their participation agreements guarantee IP-unencumbered content. Vendors compete for good content instead of keeping the authors in a watermelon patch economy.Ultimately, all technologies get washed aside, but content has to last or it is really not a market a customer wants to buy from. 3D content is expensive unless one chooses very well. There are options but the big announcements I am reading refuse to discuss them. That isn't a good portent for those following that lead. Reply
Oct 14, 2007 1:08 PM len bullard len bullard  says:
Thanks Rob. Sorry about the link. Chat with Rita when you get a chance. Get a feel for the junkyard-dog-we-refuse-to-die approach. Take a look at Ed Castronova's problems with Arden. He could have avoided those but inexperience outs. That is the problem with the rash of announcements out of the Virtual Worlds Conference. Giants are sitting down to eat the cow while Jack is hustling the golden goose down the beanstalk.River of Life: One guy could build that because.1. Free open-IP unencumbered tools and code for early adopters.2. Code that still runs ten years after a I started on viewers that have been improved over the same time and viewers that were built three years ago. That is what a real standard gets done.3. It isn't as hard as people say even when doing a lot of it by hand. In fact, the ability to get into the language instead of having to make do with server-side editors made it possible. 4. I'm not competing with the giants. ROL is not a VW. It is standalone art. All I have are magic beans called VRML and X3D, both of which are getting chopped, but the beanstalk grows back season after season. That is the real point: for an author or customer who needs to own the content, the server-side-only platforms won't meet the requirements for keeping content alive when the servers go away. In VRML, we learned the hard way what happens when a vendor quits supporting the product or goes out of business, or insists on upgrades that make the content quit working. Real time 3D is orders of magnitude harder to keep running if there is a lot of churn in the implementations. ROL, on the other hand, has content in it that is over ten years old.For the author, The Language IS the platform. Reply

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