The Rebirth of Microsoft: Observations from the Microsoft Open Source Technology Summit

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I'm writing this from a Microsoft Technology Summit where Microsoft executive after Microsoft executive is talking and -- OMG -- listening to an audience of mostly open source folks. One of the folks here referred to this as an "open source brainwashing event" in jest, but if there are opinions being changed, it appears to be happening on both sides. It is really fascinating to watch.


For those of you who have been pounded to death by Microsoft executives who appear to have gone to the IBM school of "death by PowerPoint," you'd be surprised to see that most of these folks had something like six slides. Many just showcased technology they thought the group would be interested in and asked for feedback. And man, as you can imagine, they are getting it.


This is largely being driven by the growing open source contingent in Microsoft -- people who are increasingly moving up the company and gaining influence.


Microsoft Litigation Risk Reduced or Eliminated?


One of the interesting first comments from Microsoft was that its past practice of implying it was going to sue anyone was a tactic to get folks to avoid or otherwise change their Linux positions. The folks here were understandably skeptical and most seemed to think the guy that needs to take this position is Microsoft's CEO, whom they believed to be the biggest offender.


During one of the breaks, the discussion seemed to coalesce around the idea that it was clear that the folks presenting to us truly want to embrace open source but that the break was with Microsoft's executive management, particularly Steve Ballmer, who was brought up by name often.


But the fact that what appears to be a large number of increasingly influential people seemed to think these Linux threats were stupid does suggest a change is occurring in Microsoft. And the attendees seem to acknowledge that.


Since the groups that these folks represent would likely first see a litigation opportunity and then be asked to help build a justification for it, the fact they don't want to go down this path should reduce substantially the related risk.


Open Source Improving Microsoft Efficiency


One of the interesting things disclosed in the first hours of this event was the Microsoft realization that open source folks were often much more effective than comparable Microsoft teams. They told stories of efforts by one or two folks that accomplished tasks in time frames that seemed impossibly fast. This seemed to drive changes in how the company does work itself. While it wasn't clear how far this learning has spread, it should improve Microsoft's own execution, creating better products faster.


In addition, and part of the purpose of this event, Microsoft realized that it wasn't enough to believe its tools are better. It has to prove they are better. Part of the reason this audience appears to be here is to validate that thinking and, where disagreement exists, document it and improve the tool accordingly.


As the day ended, we had a guy from GE (NBC) stand up and talk about the use of Silverlight for the Olympics. He got pounded harder than any of the Microsoft folks, largely because of NBC's lack of support for iTunes. Looking around, most of the folks here are using Macs. So much for desktop Linux.


While I'm not sure Microsoft is getting any major converts, what it is presenting seems to be getting positive feedback. It's also making me realize it has been a long time since I've written code.


Gestalt from the First Day


What is important to take from this event isn't the products presented. In fact, the folks here are actually more interested in what the executives have to say than what the products do. They seem hopeful that Microsoft is sincere and believe the folks presenting are sincere, but doubt the senior Microsoft executives are.


I think this showcases that both sides actually want to work together, but there is an ongoing problem of trust based on previous inflammatory comments from both sides and the fundamental differences between how the two groups handle intellectual property.


But, at least here, the ball moved. I can't tell how far but it appears to have moved in the collaborative direction, and that probably is good for both sides. We'll see.