What Can Open Source Learn from Microsoft?

A Linux Foundation executive says the open-community can learn much just from the way Microsoft handles developer relations.  

SAN FRANCISCO-So, what exactly can the open-source community learn from Microsoft and the proprietary world?

Quite a lot it would appear, if the discussion of the topic at a session here at the annual Open Source Business Conference March 25 is anything to go by.

While the discussion was largely serious, there were some lighter moments, particularly at the start when Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, cited a number of particularly nasty comments that had been posted about him after he was previously quoted saying positive things about Microsoft.

"I expect more of the same, now and later. Feel free to send them, to Twitter away," he quipped, before Sam Ramji, Microsoft's senior director of open source and Linux strategy, whispered loudly behind his hand "your check is in the mail," which generated much laughter.

But, on a more serious note, Zemlin stressed that while Windows and Linux competed, Microsoft had become the de facto standard over time, while the Linux Foundation supported open standards.

Microsoft also did several things well, including providing some degree of consistency for its platform, while the Linux community was still defining what the common standards were across projects and "we could be doing a better job of that," Zemlin said.

Microsoft also did excellent work in developer relations, he said, citing the Microsoft Developer Platform as a good example of this.

For his part, Ramji said Microsoft provided consistency, as well as product and tool ease-of-use, and open source could benefit from doing the same things.

Neelan Choksi, the chief operating officer at SpringSource, said Microsoft did both traditional and developer marketing really well, which was a key lesson that open source could learn from the company.

Asked about how trust was created and built, Zemlin said this came through transparency, which was something the open-source community had achieved, while Ramji said predictability was one of the key ways to achieve this.

Microsoft was also trying to build more joint communities with the open world, he said, and had been so successful at creating scale by being inescapably connected to the outcomes its customers wanted to see.

With regard to economics, Zemlin said economic sustainability was necessary in any model, but noted that all the money did not have to flow down to a single source, a reference to Microsoft's model. Ramji responded that Microsoft made about $1 for every $8 its partners did, which was a far cry from a single-source model.

Asked how Linux could improve its visibility, one of the audience members suggested it learn from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's antics at its annual developer conference, which are almost always recorded and posted to the Web, gaining millions of views and lots of free publicity for the company.

"So, you want me to take my shirt off," Zemlin joked, to much laughter from the audience.

Matt Asay, the vice president of business development at Alfresco Software, asked what the community could do to make open-source projects more usable by individuals and bring more people into the community.

"This is a matter where leadership counts. The Foundation is working to bring leaders together, identify these type of issues and then have them go back and work on these within their communities," Zemlin said.

Jean Barmash, the director of services at Alfresco, said there would also be more focus on usability going forward as a way for companies to add value and differentiate themselves.