Microsoft and Open Source Software

In the last few years, technology companies have started to rely more and more on open source software. From startups to old, established companies such as IBM, everyone is taking the open source revolution as an opportunity to use software that is supported by a world-wide community of programmers.

The reality of free software is that it makes it much easier to compete with Microsoft. With its closed source operating system, Microsoft is practically the last big company that rejects open source at the core of its products. While Microsoft has allowed its customers to use and share some of the open source code created inside Microsoft, the company itself has not deviated from its original path of creating a closed source ecosystem for programmers.

By their own design, Microsoft decided to create operating systems and libraries that are entirely proprietary. It is in their genetic code to do software themselves, and not trying to leverage efforts from somebody else. After all, the whole goal of Microsoft is to shape software people use, not to follow what somebody else is doing, whatever the origin of the code is.

But not everything is good in Microsoft’s world. A lot of cracks have become evident, as its PC business is starting to erode. While they have a clear lead on the operating systems, business, and server software, there is a lot of competition in the consumer front.

If you think about the current situation of Microsoft, you might think that starting to use free software would also makes sense for them. After all, everyone from IBM to Apple and Google are firmly on the open source camp by now.

Making the Right Decision

One has to wonder if Microsoft is doing the right thing when it suffers from the kind of competition allowed by Free Software. Put in another way, the question becomes: is the decision to continue relying on closed software still correct when free software is being used as an strategic advantage by all other rivals: Apple, Google, and Oracle?

I think the answer is no. Microsoft initially believed that the right way to deal with Free Software was to ignore it and invest more into better proprietary code for operating systems and other system products they own.

The problem with this strategy is two fold: operating system software is now a commodity, thanks to successful open source projects such as Linux, Free BSD, and Open BSD. These operating systems are nowadays complete, well supported by major vendors (IBM, Apple, Oracle), and in many ways more stable than Microsoft’s implementation of Windows.

The other reason is that open source is always evolving due to their fundamental nature. The best ideas in operating systems, database design, and any other system software are being implemented right now for these free systems. That has been true for as long as UNIX exists, but it has become much more important now that these operating systems are commercially supported.

While this happens, Microsoft has to do the same by themselves, without the possibility of directly using free software. This can be viewed as a competitive disadvantage that increases costs and reduces opportunities.

After more than 20 years of free software use, it has become evident for many technology companies that using free software is a strategic advantage. A company can nowadays benefit by using as much as needed from free software in order to create a custom product in record time.

This is how products like the iPhone and the iPad could be crafted without the need to write a completely new operating system from scratch. Microsoft hasn’t that ability, even though it controls Windows. They need to pay an inordinate development cost in order to maintain their closed systems. Every iteration of Windows has to be done completely in home, and doesn’t benefit from software written by others.

While the current situation can be sustained by Microsoft for the near future, I imagine that it will become more and more a hindrance for it future growth. They will finally need either to open source their software in order to achieve similar advantages, or to start using existing free software the way their competitors are doing right now. In other words, I think we are not far away from a time when Microsoft will roll out their first Linux and/or BSD based products.

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About the Author

Carlos Oliveira holds a PhD in Systems Engineering and Optimization from University of Florida. He works as a software engineer, with more than 10 years of experience in developing high performance, commercial and scientific applications in C++, Java, and Objective-C. His most Recent Book is Practical C++ Financial Programming.

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