Can We Take Microsoft at Its Open Source Word?

| About: Microsoft Corporation (MSFT)

It's a radical departure, this news from Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) that openness between its products and the rest of the universe is more than a hollow platitude. To take Microsoft at its Word, given this release, is to open an era of an entirely new Microsoft. But is it?

For Microsoft's admitting Thursday that it needs to be more open, should meaningfully support standards, should allow developers access to APIs, should make its documents easy to share, should build new interoperability-friendly APIs for its major products -- this is also admitting that it has tried to thwart or undo these very avenues to progress in the past.

This has to be more than trying to appease the European regulators.

So Microsoft's declaration to embrace openness is at the same time a mea culpa, that it has been employing dirty tricks to seal its products off, and has tried to punish those that would seek to make productivity from the interchange between Microsoft's products and the rest of the universe. And it has been doing it all as a convicted monopolist.

And so we are now supposed to move on. Please see this as a new era of openness, we were wrong (while the price was right), and now we're going to play nice. We love open source, and standards, and API access, and third-party developers. Sorry, so sorry, let's move forward.

So they say.

And to pair this new air of openness with the acid hostile takeover bid for Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) offers a few potential insights, if not underscores deep internal conflicts, in Redmond.

It is odd that the road to openness demands the takeover of a foe, nee friend. One week we need to outbid the world to grab a company distinctly different from our own (for the engineers), and the next week we need to better love the sharing between people and technology (for the engineers).

What? These market movers strike me as at crosscurrents, at best, or more likely some kind of bi-polar method to software development and deployment amid an advertising-crazed upset of the monopoly apple cart.

And yet, too, the odd pairing makes sense, if you're a cynic.

Because by seeking to buy Yahoo, Microsoft is also making some major mea culpas. By trying to buy Yahoo, Microsoft is in effect agreeing that open source is essential to any competitive, world-class datacenter or cloud fabric of the future. And so then Microsoft needs to change its tune about open source. Sorry, we goofed. Now we'll just buy an open source cloud infrastructure.

If by seeking to buy Yahoo, Microsoft aims to broaden its reach as a purveyor of IT functions as services (beyond the Live stuff to date), then openness and interoperability between its products and Yahoo's services is a must. And again, Microsoft needs to change its tune about openness and interoperability. Sorry, we were wrong about the Web. It's not going away. Our interfaces won't necessarily be the gateway to the Internet assets you need and seek.

If by seeking to buy Yahoo, Microsoft aims to use industry standards to integrate its Windows Everywhere arsenal with the rest of Yahoo -- and most enterprises or portals, for that matter -- then Microsoft needs to change its tune about its depth of use and commitment to open industry standards. Sorry, we should have played nice all along. Who wants proprietary formats, anyway?

For Microsoft to make the Yahoo merger work, the announcements Thursday have to work too. By buying and integrating Yahoo into Microsoft, in essence, forces Microsoft to be integrated with a much larger slice of the real world. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.

But what happens after the Yahoo merger, assuming they integrate it all (or at least make it interoperable, presumably leveraging the very standards they so long disdained)? What's to say that everything that Microsoft is pledging to do today, they decide not to do in two years?

Is there no going back? Or is this the means to the ever-larger platform play that Microsoft could not attain -- of extending one monopoly to another? Is this the Web-as-platform acquisition that leads only to increased advertising revenues at the cost of the demise of the original monopoly and those juicy license fees?

I do like what I'm hearing, I just wish it was easier to believe that Microsoft by its very nature has changed along with the need for it to change.

It seems easy for Redmond to cop these mea culpas. It's not as easy for me to forget what made them necessary.