Look Who's Discovered the Virtues of Openness

You know the stereotype: Microsoft is the sworn enemy of openness, unwilling to open its code or hardware to others. It's a monopolist bent on world domination, willing to use its lawyers and market strength to ensure that Windows and Office don't face any serious competition.

In years past, that stereotype had some truth to it. Microsoft certainly used its monopoly power to quash competition. (And that's making news again. Bill Gates will be testifying in a lawsuit in which Novell charges that Microsoft used monopolistic practices to try to kill the once-popular WordPerfect word processing software.)

And even when Microsoft made overtures to open source, its proponents called those gestures halfhearted. When Microsoft signed a cross-licensing deal involving Novell's SUSE Linux software in November 2006, the open-source community eyed the pact with suspicion. Then, in May 2007, Microsoft claimed that open-source software violated 235 Microsoft patents.

In recent months, Microsoft has launched a raft of lawsuits against Android hardware companies, charging that Android violates a variety of Microsoft patents. Many Android device manufacturers have settled, to the tune of $444 million.

All of that certainly sounds like the practices of a company that is not friendly to openness and eager to use lawsuits to achieve what its engineers can't.

Despite this impression, over the past few years, Microsoft has quietly discovered the virtues of openness. A recent example concerns a "jailbreaking" app for Windows Phone 7 devices. Normally, Windows Phone 7 devices can run only apps available through Microsoft's official app store, the Windows Phone Marketplace. Microsoft, though, recently allowed the developer ChevronWP7 Labs to sell a jailbreaking app through the Windows Phone Marketplace, after initially banning it a year ago.

That's not the first time Microsoft has done such a thing -- and not even the most dramatic instance of it. In November 2010, Microsoft aligned itself with the do-it-yourself movement when it decided to let anyone hack into the guts of its Kinect controller-free gaming system for any purpose. At first, when hackers began doing this to the Kinect, Microsoft issued a veiled threat against them. But not long after that, the company saw the benefits of such hacking and welcomed anyone to get involved; it even announced plans to work with universities to promote such activity. Alex Kipman, director of incubation for Xbox Live, told National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" that Microsoft designed the Kinect with an open USB port so that PCs would be able to access the device's sensors. And he said that Microsoft would also increase its partnerships with universities for research using the Kinect.

Why has Microsoft now become a friend of openness? Because, like other companies, it has found that it's good for business. For example, when iRobot saw that its Roomba robotic vacuum was proving popular with hackers, the company started selling the iRobot Create, a programmable robot with the guts of a Roomba but no ability to vacuum.

By opening up the Kinect, Microsoft helps fuel a new market for the device, as well as plenty of marketing buzz. As for Windows Phone 7, it's struggling to gain market share, so allowing jailbreaking can only help with sales.

By slowly embracing openness, Microsoft isn't forgoing the idea of profits. Rather, it recognizes that being open is a way to increase profits.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

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