It’s the end of an era at Microsoft — or is it?

Neil McAllister's take on Bill Gates' planned retirement

The press is abuzz with speculation about Bill Gates’s “impending” departure from Microsoft. As InfoWorld editor-in-chief Steve Fox rightly points out, no other company could announce executive turnover in two years’ time and have it called news. What lends gravitas to this non-event, however, is an idea that’s been growing within the industry and which is beginning to find its voice: it’s time for change.

Gone are the days of skyrocketing stock prices at Microsoft. The grand vision of the company’s next-generation OS has proved too ambitious, with Windows Vista missing deadline after deadline. Customer frustration with security flaws and lock-in tactics is growing. Microsoft’s attempts at software as a service have been largely stillborn. And throughout it all, Microsoft executives maintain that the biggest threat is ... a search engine company?

Plainly, the real problem is that the old ideas just aren’t working. Microsoft has been phenomenally successful as a software company, but as the years have gone by, it has increasingly struggled to adapt to change. The internet changed computing in fundamental ways, yet by Bill Gates’s own admission, Microsoft was slow to react.

The software business itself is changing, and central to that change is open source. Yet Microsoft has remained heavily entrenched in its software business model: selling shrink-wrapped software through the reseller channel. Other companies, such as IBM, Novell and Sun, have adapted to different models. Open source isn’t a threat to them; rather, they embrace it. In a sense, the fact that Microsoft feels so threatened by open source exposes its vulnerability. The company has shown every sign of stumbling again. Could a change in leadership bring it to a surer footing?

In an interview with eWeek, Bob Muglia, senior vice president of Microsoft’s servers and tools business, seemed to suggest Microsoft’s traditional animosity to open source might be cooling. “We are open to ways of working with the open source community broadly, and even in the GPL [General Public Licence] space we are trying to find ways in which we can build bridges to GPL,” he says. However, he adds, “The bridge has to be carefully constructed”.

Open source developers typically scoff at such statements. If Microsoft wants to build bridges to open source, why not open its protocols? Why not support public standards, such as OpenDocument? Why not comply with antitrust judgements, both in the US and in Europe. Why not — you know — build bridges?

Behind the scenes, there’s further evidence that a change in thinking may be under way at Microsoft. The abrupt departure of Martin Taylor is one example. You might not know Taylor’s name, but you surely remember Microsoft’s notorious “Get the Facts” campaign, which he led. The “facts” in question were a series of Microsoft-

sponsored studies and papers that amounted to a smear campaign against Linux, focusing on purported hidden costs and support nightmares.

Negative attack ads have never been a responsible way to run a political campaign, let alone a software business. If Taylor’s departure indicates Microsoft is ready to put its “Get the Facts” tactics behind it, it will be welcome news. Because regardless of what Linux might be doing, Microsoft needs to get its own house in order. It needs to shore up its software development processes, deliver products on schedule and figure out how to compete effectively in a software market that’s radically different from the one it helped pioneer two decades ago.

The wild card in this deck is the new kid on the block: Gates’s heir apparent, Ray Ozzie. The creator of Lotus Notes and Groove, Ozzie isn’t an open source guy, but he does know software and his specialty is collaboration. When he takes over Gates’s role as chief software architect two years from now, might Ozzie have vision enough to transition Microsoft towards a more collaborative, inclusive style of software development?

Let’s hope so. A Microsoft that can learn to play fair, be more transparent and embrace the radical changes taking place in the way organisations procure, develop and deploy software could be a powerful boon for the industry. But I’m not holding my breath.

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