Last week, Mary Jo Foley offered commentary on Microsoft's open source software strategy with respect to independent software vendors based on an interview with Microsoft's Sam Ramji. Matt Asay provides good colour commentary on his blog. Each post focuses on the trustworthiness and competitive history of the company. Let's look at things from a different perspective.
First, if you sell software solutions, and one of the platforms you support is Windows, you're not alone. There is a lot of free and open source software that has company support that is deployed on Windows as one of its platforms. The "big" free and open source software names include:
(80%/60%) [Evans Data Corp., September 2006]
While Eclipse itself isn't a company, many ISVs build businesses around the Eclipse project.
(62%/37%) [Evans Data Corp., September 2007]
(74%/47%) [IDC, Summer 2007]
If Windows is one of the platforms you support, there should be nothing stopping you from considering joining a Microsoft ISV partner program. They provide lots of material and information to make it easier to develop, market, and sell on Windows than doing it all on your own. It absolutely benefits their growth. It benefits yours as well.
To provide the best possible experience for your customers, if the Windows version of your applications needs to use Active Directory, Microsoft Operations Manager, or any other Microsoft specific technology, then I'm going to assume you'll best serve your customers and architect the application accordingly for multi-platform development, deployment and support. We have been architecting applications to support multiple platforms for decades, and it's easier today with common tools and languages (most of them open source), and standards support across platforms. Again, better to join a Microsoft ISV program and cheaply get access to the best technical information possible for the platform to support your customers.
Some consider "doing business with Microsoft" tainted. There is no excuse for the behaviour we all saw from Microsoft with Netscape, or Sun with Java. If not for the high profile of the last U.S. Department of Justice investigation, the preponderance of email, and the ease with which one can search it, we wouldn't have such wonderfully embarrassing email examples that demonstrate how some people inside Microsoft think. (It makes you wonder what embarrassing gems are sitting in the email queues of other companies that haven't had this level of public legal scrutiny.) But most companies aren't in a position to demand their customers shift platforms. Even MySQL AB supported the SCO Openserver platform better to support customers.
[Contrary to popular belief, Microsoft didn't eat all its original ISV chain out of a rapacious need for growth. Customers demanded Microsoft provide a lot of tool support directly to simplify their development and procurement needs as the platform became ubiquitous.]
There are several things to understand about partnering with Microsoft that have a lot to do with the history and culture of the company. Microsoft was the PC software company, i.e. Microsoft customers had enormous deployments of small footprint inexpensive machines, versus the big server company (1990s) with far fewer big-iron multi-processor machines, versus the mini-computer company (1980s) with fewer less powerful systems, versus the mainframe company (1970s) with fewer still very large machines. While today a company will rack out thousands of blade servers in their back-room big-iron environment, in the 1980s and 1990s they didn't.
Microsoft developed programs throughout their channel sales and marketing organizations to enable them to scale their growth. Their margins were completely different from the other large software companies (e.g. SAP, Oracle) or UNIX OEMs. So a VMS or UNIX ISV may have seen OEM staff arrive on site to help migrate or tune an application to the platform because of the margins involved in that business, but Microsoft had to create a program to enable their DOS then early Windows ISVs to get access to expertise differently. Starting an ISV that developed PC-related software required a far smaller capital outlay and so there were a lot of such companies. Programs like MSDN were created. The ISV programs were by definition information-intense but engagement-soft. It was the smartest way to correctly serve both their ISV partners and their business model.
Hardware, software, and the Internet evolved. Windows became Windows NT has become Windows Vista and Server growing into the data centre. The big iron UNIX server world is evolving into scaled arrays of Linux servers. While these worlds collide in the data centre, the financial success of Microsoft remains tied to a culture of scaled programs. If you're an ISV that is used to the way IBM, Sun, or HP treat you, you may be surprised by a Microsoft program's lack of personal engagement.
There's another cultural practice that contributed to Microsoft's growth and success through the 1990s and that effects partner programs (and customers alike). Employees were allowed, indeed encouraged, to regularly shift positions within the company. In the early days it kept smart people that might be prone to boredom fresh and ensured culture wasn't lost through the employee leaving the company. That practice is still considered a strength today. Scale-out programs (not tied to specific people or relationships) supported this model.
But it means that any relationships built with the Microsoft by an ISV will likely change regularly. You're going to need patience and regular contact to follow-up with the program people you do meet, and [hopefully] get quick early warning when that person is about to change. You're also going to need determination to be the squeaky persistent wheel. You may be one US$10M/year company clamouring for attention from a Microsoft employee drowning on 150+ emails a day who is responsible for a program with 100 companies like you. Managing the relationship to continue to get attention requires perseverance. If you can grow your business better through a technical partnership similar to the Zend PHP relationship, you will need to be prepared for a very focused meeting because you'll likely get one shot to get the point across. (Hint: Start with the punchline then keep things short and direct.)
In the end, do what makes sense for your customers. Join the Microsoft ISV program if it makes business sense. Use the materials that help your business grow and ignore the rest. Do it with your eyes wide open and your expectations set. Best of luck!