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Microsoft holds Androids hostage in open source wars

Redmond threat level: bright orange

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Open...and Shut For years Microsoft has raged — and whined — against the open source machine, once going so far as to castigate open source as being "un-American". Something must be wrong with a development model, as Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Jim Gray once lamented, that evaporates the possibility of profit in software sales.

And yet open source has marched on, eventually claiming mainstream acceptance as it helped highly capitalistic companies such as Google create hugely profitable businesses. While these companies thrive, however, Microsoft remains cautious, as evidenced in its product strategy and in its hiring patterns.

As Microsoft has watched the open source world pass it by, it has had two main responses:

  1. Threaten open-source developers with lawsuits.
  2. Adopt open source within its own product lines.

Microsoft has been earnest but uneven in its open-source adoption, but sadly consistent in its threats — and the Microsoft-against-open-source threat level moved to bright orange this week with news that Redmond is trying to hold Acer and Asustek hostage by levying patent royalties on them in reponse to those device manufacturers' use of Google's open source mobile platform, Android.

Microsoft, in its quest to relive the glory days of its past, is trying to get Acer and Asustek to cough up $10 to $15 dollars per device, according to sources familiar with the matter. Long addicted to a license-fee model, Redmond hopes to impose this model on the rest of the world. In this it will fail, even if it succeeds in its royalty blackmail against Acer and Asustek.

Why? Because Apple has already set the price of an operating system at $0.00 (£0.00, €0.00, ¥000). No one pays an iOS license fee — well, no one is allowed to, but that's a separate matter. The salient point is that Google has simply conveyed this price to ODMs and OEMs.

Microsoft has always struggled to compete effectively with free, but its future lies in embracing free — free complements, that is. And the mobile OS is a complement for which Microsoft will never be able to charge. Period. That battle has been fought and won for Android and iOS. "Free" is where the operating system conversation starts these days, particularly thanks to Linux, and no lawsuit is going to reverse this fact.

There are plenty of reasons why Microsoft is struggling, but Ray Ozzie, who has done much to change the way Microsoft sees the world, recently penned a farewell memo that acknowledges the coming post-PC era and calls out Microsoft for its failure to lead in this new era's formation:

Yet, for all our great progress, some of the opportunities I laid out in my memo five years ago remain elusive and are yet to be realized.

Certain of our competitors' products [i.e., Apple's iPhone/iPad and Google's Android] and their rapid advancement & refinement of new usage scenarios have been quite noteworthy. Our early and clear vision notwithstanding, their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in the seamless fusion of hardware & software & services, and in social networking [e.g., Facebook] & myriad new forms of internet-centric social interaction.

Ozzie calls for the dawn of a new day, but Microsoft's actions in Taiwan suggest a company flailing about as it seeks to add a few more hours to yesterday.

Microsoft must change if it is to regain relevance, and its rearguard legal machinations only stymie its progress. The company need look no further than Google to grasp the magnitude of the changes it needs to make, as Keir Thomas captures:

Microsoft has a problem, and it's this: Its entire business model is built around discrete computers running discrete applications...

The key thing about online applications [such as Google's] is that they are platform agnostic...Open source doesn't require licensing fees, and is like a double-jointed Russian gymnast: It's flexible. Really flexible. This puts it in a far better position to provide a platform for the new platform agnostic online world.

Chrome (technically Google Chromium) is open source because it makes no sense for Google to lock-down software to one hardware platform or architecture. The platform no longer matters in the Google universe, and this perhaps is the biggest difference between the Microsoft and Google philosophies. Microsoft needs you to keep you using Windows and an x86 platform.

Google [doesn't] care what computer or platform you use, and is actively encouraging you to be eclectic in your choice. Microsoft's approach is all about restriction. Google's approach is all about freedom.

But here's the thing: Microsoft still commands healthy developer fealty, at least in enterprise and desktop computing, as Redmond analyst Stephen O'Grady describes. SharePoint, .Net, and other skills continue to command a premium in IT salaries.

The game, in other words, is not over for Microsoft. But it soon will be if the company keeps imposing a levy on open source adoption in an attempt to stem the tide of open source and how it shifts software value away from license fees.

That's a losing strategy. An absolutely abysmal strategy. It will kill Microsoft's credibility with developers and won't bring in the same kind of money that would come from truly competing against Android and iOS, rather than seeking to crush the former and ape the latter.

Microsoft can do better. ®

Matt Asay is chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears every Friday on The Register.

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