Microsoft: The Platform and Open Source Company?

We keep seeing some mighty strange talk from Microsoft these days. Not only is Microsoft a platform company now for Microsoft-based applications through the Azure platform, but Microsoft is embarking on two new strategies: be the web platform and cozying up to open source, from Linux right up to and including open source apps. It’s a very new twist on the old Microsoft “extend and embrace” strategy. Now, rather than ignoring the obvious, things like PHP apps, Linux, and open source software, Microsoft’s suddenly (and relatively quietly) turned ship and wants to embrace these technologies on the Microsoft platform.

I’m not sure yet Microsoft has fully come to grips with all this, but if it does happen, this is the Microsoft equivalent of Apple moving to an Intel hardware platform, essentially giving in and joining the rest of the world. (I wouldn’t go so far as to compare it to Apple’s move to BSD as their OS kernel. That’s not going to happen.)

* PHP support is very smart. The world is full of PHP, a lot more than most of us recognize. Jumping into ASP.NET and Microsoft’s web app technologies requires a big shift and a big commitment for web app developers who haven’t previously drunk Microsoft-flavored Kool-aid. The opening in Microsoft’s previously locked up tight door is PHP, making it easier for thousands of sites and apps to move onto a Windows hosted platform. Rather than ignore PHP, Microsoft is embracing it on their Web Platform (announced at MIX09) and as part of the Azure platform services.

* Virtual host for Linux operating systems. Some announcements (or at least explanations of this whole shift in strategy) are expected from Microsoft at the Open Source Business Conference today. Microsoft is talking alongside keynotes from others with more open source “street cred”, like Red Hat, Sun and Novell, but it doesn’t appear Microsoft is making any big announcements with those companies (but we’ll have to wait until later this a.m. to find out.)  Microsoft appears finally ready to try and get out ahead of the rush to virtualization and less costly Linux on servers, by becoming the virtualization platform for hosting those Linux-flavored guest operating systems. The dilemma is Hyper-V and Systems Center Virtual Machine Manager aren’t quite up to par with competitive VMware and Citrix offerings for managing sophisticated virtualized environments. But if you’re a Windows shop and haven’t committed to an alternative virtualization option, Microsoft has a less feature laden but still viable path for you.

* Get the customers while you still have them. Microsoft isn’t changing direction because they suddenly have religion about open source, at least not the way open source advocates do. They’re still going to be considered wolves in sheeps’ clothing by the open source crowed. No doubt. But this part of Microsoft’s strategy is about keeping Windows Server and web app customers on Windows for their virtualization, OS, database, web server and application technologies, and staving off further drainage of customers to virtualization competition and fully open source alternatives.

* Embrace and extend, or just a big tent. Unless Microsoft is planning to announce it’s suddenly open sourcing more of its technologies, this strategy is more of a “big tent” approach and not any sign Microsoft its self will adopt any kind of an open source product strategy. (That’s probably stating the obvious.) Microsoft just wants to expand its world view to include what’s already happening, and will increase happening in a downed economy, by running open source apps and underlying technologies on Microsoft hosted platforms, OS, and virtual environments. Preferably using Microsoft’s SQL server, IIS web server, OS or at least Hyper-V.  

There’s nothing preventing open source apps from bringing along MySQL for the database and Apache for the web server, or even Linux as the OS in virtualized situations. Microsoft just wants to play somewhere within the software stack of app solutions, and hopeful convince Microsoft customers to stay Microsoft, and move more new apps to Microsoft technologies where they can.

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