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Can Microsoft Really Change?

Like so many publications and Web sites in the IT industry, Redmond Developer News has spent a lot of time pondering the future of Microsoft after Bill Gates. RDN columnist Will Zachmann just wrote a feature story that looks at Gates' developer legacy. And frequent RDN contributor and Redmond magazine columnist Mary Jo Foley has written an entire book about what Microsoft must do in the Web 2.0 (and, by definition, post-Gates) computing era.

Yet, I struggle with almost every scenario that involves a sharp divergence from the status quo. The problem, in the short- and mid-term, is that Microsoft seems to have a lot more to lose by changing course than it does by holding tight to its vast, strategic advantage.

Sure, Microsoft has unleashed a torrent of valuable protocol and API documentation under the aegis of its interoperability pledge. And yes, Redmond has done once-unthinkable things like open its Office file formats under an XML-based industry standard.

It's even found ways to play nicely with open source developers, extending a hand to the Mono and Moonlight projects for Linux, and providing the CodePlex and Port 25 sites to promote open source development for Windows.

But none of this answers an inescapable question: How is Microsoft supposed to adequately monetize the coming world of free and services-based software when it can apply a vast premium for its shrink-wrapped goods?

Every time I hear open source proponents argue the upside of a more open Microsoft strategy, I feel like Tom Hanks' character Josh in the movie Big. Sitting in a product meeting, the boy in a man's body listens to a rather badly considered pitch for a child's toy (a building that turns into a robot). The adults all quietly nod their heads, but Josh raises his hand and says flatly: "I don't get it."

Maybe the future of Microsoft does include service-centric applications, modular operating systems and hybrid open and closed-source software. Maybe the product wizards in Redmond can scheme a way to ever higher profits and indomitable market share. But I have to believe that an awful lot has to go just right for Microsoft to see its way through such a transformation.

As a developer, do you believe Microsoft should open its business and its software even further? And if so, do you see a way for Redmond to profit from such an approach? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 07/08/2008 at 1:15 PM

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