Times Change, Microsoft Changes

Opinion: Microsoft's 12 principles indicate a change in rhetoric from the software giant. And that's half the battle.

Whats all the fuss about Microsofts 12 new principles for Windows? Whats the big deal? Times change, people change, companies change.

Microsoft has changed and is continuing to evolve. Well, not necessarily overnight, but this move is clearly an indication that the company is changing ... if not its overall policies and practices, at least its rhetoric. That counts for a lot.

In a speech at the National Press Club on July 19, Microsofts general counsel, Brad Smith, acknowledged that eight of the 12 "new" principles come directly from guidelines hammered out in the settlement Microsoft came to with the federal government following its legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice.

So not a ton is new in these principles, but there is some newness in there. And its the fact that Microsoft is doing this at all that indicates change.

Smith said Microsoft has learned some key lessons and these principles are a result of that. Perhaps the biggest lesson, he said, was learning to be humble.

"Weve had five years of experience under the U.S. consent decree, and one thing weve learned is the importance of humility," Smith said.

And if you look youll see that Microsoft of late has been showing a lot more humility, or at least more willingness to cooperate—from these new principles to the companys olive branch to the open source community.

And much of it started with the companys move from former general counsel Bill Neukom to Brad Smith, who seems to have ushered in a new era of the checkbook legal strategy for the software giant.

Under Smiths regime, Microsoft has settled a slew of lawsuits that were nagging at the companys bottom line. Neukom helped guide Microsoft through its formative years and through legal battles with the likes of Apple, Lotus, Borland and even Sun—a situation later settled under Smith.

And Neukom set the course for Microsofts battle with the DOJ, which despite the ruling of then U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, Microsoft actually won.

From an industry watchers perspective, I have to say I liked the Neukom years better. That was the bare-knuckled Microsoft.

But things change. Smith is more of a negotiator than a fighter. He said Microsoft has learned the importance of persistence. Persistence, "not only in standing up for what you think is right, but also persistence in keeping open dialogue," he said.

That open dialogue helped Microsoft reach settlement on many of its nagging legal problems and could eventually help Microsoft out of its problems with the European Commission, Smith said.

So these new principles indicate change. The change in rhetoric is half the battle. Beyond this, Microsoft needs to stop "leveraging the desktop" because it hasnt really worked out well for them—certainly not in the marketplace of public opinion.

/zimages/3/28571.gifMicrosoft establishes 12 principles for Windows development. Click here to read more.

Microsoft has had a history of seeing an upstart competitive product out there, worrying about it, and then making a mediocre entrant of its own that then does not see uptake.

Then the company writes a flurry of e-mails about how they have to leverage the desktop, while also continuing to work on the technology and eventually create a good version that does begin to gain market share.

Only then does Microsoft gets accused of foul play. Truth is they may, in fact, in many cases, be guilty of foul play but that foul play has not, of late, helped win them any market share.

Instead, it has had a net effect of causing a morale sinkhole for some of the companys engineers, who work hard to build and improve Microsofts products. Yet, all many observers see is not the hard work that went into creating Microsofts technology, but rather the so-called foul play.

So in some ways, this move is a commitment to set aside that method of competition, not because Microsoft is now kinder and gentler, but because it doesnt really work and all it has accomplished is to get the company into trouble. One reader sent me a note saying Microsofts new principles are more about "preserving their position." Well, of course they are. The same reader wrote: "Its so good to know the real Mr. Gates & Company which destroyed the true potential of our information technology economy, claims its now changing its ways, after 30 years of breaking laws and promises."

Well, I dont know that Gates and company destroyed the potential of the information economy. But who knows where wed be if Microsoft had behaved differently or had established these principles 10 or more years ago? I welcome your thoughts on that.

/zimages/3/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for Microsoft and Windows news, views and analysis.