Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What can the open source community learn from Microsoft?

If there's one unifying thread that runs throughout the open source community it seems to be the almost universal disdain of Microsoft. While there are no doubt very valid reasons for such hate, I think it prevents the community from not only competing effectively with Microsoft but also using the company's own resources to our advantage.

Regardless of our opinion of Microsoft's business practices, security problems, or its executives, one thing we can all agree on is, by its sheer size, market penetration, and near ubiquity within the business world, the company not only exploits technology trends but drives them. In their effort to be 'everything to everyone everywhere', exploiting trends also means having the ability the accurately predict trends months, and sometimes years, before they occur. Microsoft has spent billions of dollars doing market research, focus groups, and customer interviews in their constant effort to better understand the markets they operate in and anticipate what their customers are going to need in future.

That's where I think the open source community can truly benefit and it's something we're missing out on in a huge way.

Let's be honest for a moment: with very few exceptions, the creators of most open source technologies suck at both marketing and understanding trends. For the most part, open source seems to be a constant game of 'catch up' where, when a technology becomes popular, an open source version of it appears. Sure, that's not *always* the case and there has been a good bit of innovation within the community but, for the most part, it's always chasing proprietary technology.

In order for us to really compete, we have to get better at not only providing technology users (customers) need today, but anticipating what they're going to need tomorrow and making sure that technology is available when that time finally comes.

This is where Microsoft can help. The company has thousands of whitepapers and case studies, gigabytes of video discussing future technology trends, hundreds or thousands of pieces of marketing material, and volumes of other things that we can use to our advantage. By tapping into Microsoft's business research, we can gain valuable insight into what our customers are going to need and use the collective power of our community to deliver better, more stable, solutions that can truly compete with their proprietary cousins.

There's an old saying that says "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" that I think applies here. Microsoft is no friend to the open source community but they can be an asset to it. It's time we move past the blind hate and disgust and learn to derive value from their considerable resources.

Open source is moving out of the 'scratching your own itch' phase and into an area where we're being seen as a serious option by both large and small businesses. But we won't ever get the traction we need by playing catch up. Microsoft will continue to dominate the market if for no other reason than they successfully anticipate trends and deliver solutions that address those trends quickly. It's not enough to have better solutions; we have to deliver those solutions to the customers who need them when they need them. Telling someone "our solution will be better in a few years" won't win converts or business.

Microsoft has presented the open source community with incredible resources. It's time we stop denying the value of what they provide and start to exploit it.

No comments: