I was interviewed by Scott Mace for Open Source Conversations on Monday morning. In one part of the conversation, I created a thought experiment on some of the more creative things Microsoft could be doing with open source software to customer and business benefit. This idea is way outside the box, but then that's exactly where they need to be at this point in history. (As I said earlier: culture comes from the top, and if you expect your employees to get outside the box then you need to be their first.)
I thought I would explain the experiment more carefully here, as I sometimes get going in conversation and I have no idea how coherent it may come across "live". I can also better fill in some of the details.
Microsoft needs to start to explore open source software business processes better than the minor experiments they have done to date. Steve Ballmer also wants to license the company's intellectual property. So here's a way to do that using free software as the hook.
- Start by releasing the source code for SQL Server. This is an opportunity to use an important but not critical product revenue stream. [Yes, I do understand the revenue growth SQL Server 2005 represented — Microsoft readers need to keep reading and stop the knee jerk response.]
- Repackage the present product licensing into a subscription for SQL Server NetworkTM, similar to the subscription-based support, maintenance, tuning offerings from Red Hat Network and MySQL Network.
- The key understanding here is that today the value of SQL Server to the customer ISN'T the source code, but rather the solution it provides. The value Microsoft provides isn't the source code, but all the testing, packaging, support and maintenance. You don't NEED to drop the price of SQL Server Network below the existing price for the shrink wrap binaries. Experiment. Explore the conversation with key customers.
- Use the GPLv2 as the license. GPLv3 is unproven (although I have confidence it will be great if still a bit controversial when it's delivered). This is business conservative. You can bet IBM DB2 engineers and Oracle engineers won't be looking at the code any time soon for [stark-raving shrieking] fear of product taint.
- Construct a patent grant that allows any patents in the space to be used royalty free for database related work released under the GPLv2. This enables the software to flow within the database community under the GPL appropriately. The GPL actually becomes the brake on the technology slipping outside of the database arena. Microsoft is still able to license this technology anyway it chooses in other arenas, or to people trying to "close" the source.
- Someone in a developing economy is going to promise Blue Hat SQL Server the next day. There are several responses to this. First, if you were betting your business data on SQL Server, would you buy support from Blue Hat or Microsoft — the people that actually develop and test it? Second, understand that MySQL AB (the company) doesn't seem to be worried to much about "clones" — ask yourself why. Third, Microsoft still controls the trademark. Fourth, understand that the developing economy wasn't interested in shipping a lot of hard currency out of the economy for the privilege of using SQL Server anyway. They were going to use Postgres or MySQL. At least you're back in the game here, preparing for a future developed economy.
- It's an awesome way to find new SQL Server developers. You will see changes and bug fixes. Yes, the ratios of brilliance to cruft involve orders of magnitude, but there is no time-line for when good things arrive. We've seen brilliance arrive in the first 24 hours on other projects. This is a much better way to find future talent than interviewing. It's certainly how MySQL has grown its development team. Managing the inbound contribution flow is easier than you think legally.
Now this is where it gets interesting. At some point, in the next 24 months, someone is going to try a "mashup" of MySQL and SQL Server. There will be some SQL Server algorithm or function that's just plain too interesting to NOT try to use in MySQL. Depending upon what it is, MySQL has a pluggable architecture that encourages such experimentation. A large part of the MySQL install base lives on Windows.
The licenses for such an experiment are compatible.
But MySQL has an interesting portion of its business that depends upon its ability to license MySQL using something other than the GPL. For this DB mashup to be anything other than an interesting unsupported experiment, MySQL would need to be able to license that code from Microsoft.
MySQL has an excellent history and track record of licensing technology. This situation would be no different. If anything, it's Microsoft that would be under the gun to demonstrate it has the ability to boldly license where it has never licensed before now. But intellectual property licensing it is, and it's enabled by free and open source software.
Of course, the reverse could also happen. And Microsoft too licenses in all manner of intellectual property. Again, the mashup is highly uninteresting unless Microsoft had sufficient rights to the MySQL bits to package as a product. Makes you think. There are lots of opportunities here. It's good for customers. It's good for shareholders.
Based on current open source culture at Microsoft, I see at least six show stoppers in the seven items listed above. That's why it's just a thought experiment. But you have to admit, it's a great thought experiment.