OSS vs. Microsoft: Which Is the Most Untrustworthy?

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Now if I were to ask whether OSS or Microsoft was the least trusted, I could answer Microsoft and end this entry in less than 10 words, though some would likely disagree.


My point with this piece is to get you to think about this subject and not to simply drop into BS mode and blow to the end to write a nasty comment. For those that don't like Microsoft, I get that, but what I'm going to be pointing out is that open doesn't necessarily mean honest and that your decision to trust or not should come from diligence, not religion.


I'll get to the direct answer to this question at the end but I'd like to build to it so that you understand where I'm coming from -- whether you agree or not, you'll think about the premise and maybe make better decisions as a result.


What triggered this was going over my mail and comments on a number of my columns where OSS supporters outright lied to support a point, even when they didn't have to, coupled with a review of some of Microsoft's largest customers where, while they'd had problems, they trusted the company and were increasing their commitment to it.


What Is Trust?


Trust is often misplaced. Parents leaving kids in charge of the home while they are on vacation trust these kids to not have a big party. Yet the number of kids that can be trusted in such a case probably is in the single-digit percentages. The parents who return to a post-party home, though, likely did the same thing when they were kids -- and don't seem to understand why good kids can make mistakes.


This first example is just to get you to think that trust is related to people, not entities. The kids in the example are an entity connected to the parents' aspirations; the reality is that they are children likely easily influenced by peers who, without parental supervision, are likely to use poor judgment. In this case, I could argue it wasn't that they weren't trustworthy; the problem was created because the parents' trust was unreasonable. It was their bad judgment that caused the bad behavior, not any inherent problem unusual to their children.


Let's take another example. You have two experienced and well-regarded accountants working for you. One is very sensitive. He doesn't want you to look at the detail behind his numbers and seems to take it personally if you look, but otherwise is a great asset to your company. The other is an open book who actually wants you to look at the detail and check her numbers. Who do you trust more?


The right answer is neither. You are treating each accountant the same in this example and that means you trust both equally. Either could be covering something up, the first conventionally and the second creatively. Trust is something you do, not something someone else does for you. If I change the example so that you demand that the second accountant show you everything, then it is the "open" accountant you trust less. Your demand represents a lack of trust, and the fact that you don't require it of the first accountant suggests you trust him.


Let's take one more example. Company A has never been a problem. You buy a product and it always works until you replace it with another product three or four years later. With company B, the product breaks regularly but the vendor is always incredibly responsive and corrects the problems with a minimum of pain. Which vendor do you trust more?


The answer: This isn't intuitive. You trust the second vendor more because it demonstrated that it could be trusted more often than the first vendor did. This is actually what made Dell a success. It may seem upside down, but it is also how we are wired as humans and we can't get away from that. Sometimes it helps to understand how you are wired as well as trying to understand a vendor, because then you can question your own feelings.


OSS vs. Microsoft


In the first example, we talked of children, unreasonable trust and the problem of mistaken expectations. At the core of distrust for Microsoft is that it seems to often act in the interest of its own benefit and, when kept at arm's length, tends not to meet expectations. When it is kept close (and there is a distinct difference between the firms that trust it and those that don't), the relationship is collaborative, the overall goals are closely aligned, and the commitment by both sides is strong.


In short, in my experience, much like the example of the children, often the reason for distrust of Microsoft is unreasonable expectations. That is, Microsoft is a large multinational that has trouble focusing without help, much like children have trouble making good decisions when faced with peer pressure.


Let's stop for a moment and address those of you who have suddenly gone ballistic and want to talk about all of the nasty things Microsoft has done to competitors. Unless you are a competitor, that behavior shouldn't affect you. If you are, and trusted Microsoft, you are stupid and need to get serious help.


Notice I didn't give an OSS example. That is because, as I pointed out in the accountant example, OSS should make no difference with regard to trust. None. It depends on the company, not the practice.


I once knew a con artist who used to open up a storefront church to bilk unsuspecting Christians. Much like con artists will use religion to gain your trust, unsavory individuals will likely use OSS in the same way. Awhile back, I watched a service organization that was proud of the fact that it had manufactured a critical problem with Microsoft to turn a low-revenue account into a big-revenue Linux migration. This is called milking an account. Some might also call it fraud.


It is the people and the company that define trust, not whether they say they are open or not. If you unreasonably misplace that trust, you will be just as disappointed with an OSS company as you were with a proprietary company like Microsoft.


In the last example, I suggested that the people you trust more are those who touch you more often. If you are like most people, you thought the answer was just plain wrong, even though it is true. If you are like most, you will touch an OSS company more often because the nature of the engagement is collaborative. Because it is often custom, you may get more breakage but the vendor will be there to help you fix it.


With Microsoft, you are often interacting at arm's length, even at the purchase, which may be through a Microsoft partner. You will trust the OSS entity more in this instance. Only you can answer whether this should be the case. (By the way, don't read this to mean that I think you should trust them less, it's just that you should assure that the trust is well placed based on overall performance, not just high touch.)


I can point to service organizations that touch their clients a massive amount, only to drive up billable hours; they will do that with OSS or proprietary products equally. Again, high touch should lead to low trust.


OSS vs. Microsoft: Which Should You Trust?


The right answer is "it depends" -- on how much you put into the relationship and whether you are trusting either to do something, let's say, unnatural. Access to source code should have little to do with trust and everything to do with the project. If you need access to source, you can get access to Microsoft's source, but the result will be closer to an OSS project where you are responsible for most of the resulting support than with the packaged products at which Microsoft excels. If you expect something else, you'll likely be disappointed.


In the end, trust is something that needs to be nurtured by both sides and, once lost, isn't easily recaptured. My belief is that you shouldn't do business with a vendor you don't trust, including Microsoft. Regardless of the company, you'd better find a way to assure trust because the alternative is excessive cost, frustration and personal exposure.


Understanding that the loss of trust can be as much your fault as the vendor's and that trust has more to do with execution than disclosure goes a long way toward helping you create, understand and maintain the trusted relationships you need to be successful.


Another way of putting it: Trust is a shared responsibility. Often, the person that stops trusting is as much at fault as the entity that is now distrusted.


Final Thought


One more thing needs to be said. Microsoft often seems to go out of its way to appear untrustworthy. It makes wild claims on a regular basis that are simply unbelievable, in what appear to be attempts to cover up obvious mistakes; it issues personal memos from executives that the executives didn't write; and it makes statements about competitors that I doubt anyone can believe.


Intentionally damaging trust is not simply incompetent; it's stupid. It hurts partners and customers. I can explain the cause; I can't explain why it hasn't been fixed. Personally, I think fixing this behavior, and restoring trust, should be Microsoft's highest priority, as it appears to be costing it billions in revenue, fines and legal fees.