A blog for the enterprise open source community
Learning from Port 25Christopher Noble, April 7, 2006 @ 3:37 pm ET
I’m not here to bash Microsoft. MS bashing bores me. But there’s something not quite right about the company’s new Open Source Software Lab’s Port 25 blog – previously mentioned by Dennis below. This is an interesting beast and the way it is set up tells us quite a lot about how the company views the open source world. There are also lessons that can be draw by other companies attempting to converse with an open-source community.
First of all, it’s worth recapping that the Software Lab’s raison d’etre is primarily to understand and best a competitor. Its key tasks include examining how Microsoft management tools can handle heterogeneous environments to get Microsoft Systems Management Server or Microsoft Operations Manager configuring Linux or Unix servers, for example. The Labs also spends time checking that it’s NFS etc. implementations play well with third-party implementation.
It’s important to recognize that interoperability in this case does not involve any push to open up Microsoft’s own protocols or standards, instead it appears to operate much more along the lines of a competition research lab dedicated to understanding the enemy’s products. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But I think it’s blog is going to fall on its face.
Why? Firstly because it gives ill-defined, messages about its purpose, secondly, it doesn’t ask customers targeted questions and finally because the way it has been distanced from the main company site gives the impression that the initiative is peripheral to the company. Those are lessons that I think any ISV looking to exploit open source can learn from.
Let’s take the confused message first: Port 25 it attempts to present a folksy, open-source friendly face, with a design clearly intended to give off a slight aroma of cyberpunk. It tries to give the impression that Microsoft wants to be part of an open source community. But at the same time the content is completely upfront about it’s mission to ensure that MS software remains dominant over open source alternatives and eschews any suggestion that it is pro-opening. The confused message is compounded by the fact that on the one hand the text attempts to convince the reader that the open source lab is an integral part of Microsoft’s mission, but then, curiously, the whole things is hosed at the technet.com domain. If Microsoft was serious about getting feedback from open source-using customers, wouldn’t the site sit at www.microsoft.com/opensourcelabs ? A search on Microsoft’s site for ‘open source labs’ fails to return anything substantive.
At the same time, the site says that it wants to solicit ideas and information from customers, but fails to do so in a meaningful way. The closest it gets so far is an exhortation from the Lab’s project manager Harvinderpal Singh Malhotra (Kish) to: “If you are so inclined, please take a moment to shoot me some thoughts on things you’d like to see us work on in our lab.” Not surprisingly, instead of collecting substantive feedback, the site has merely gathered 100s of comments from Slashdot and Digg posters intent on explaining how much, and in what ways they believe that Microsoft ‘sucks’.
So. What do I think that other companies can learn from the project?
Be clear about what you want and why you are running it.
My feeling here is that the Microsoft Open Source labs workers have a vague feeling that they should in some way be ‘reaching out’ to the open source community, but this is hampered by the knowledge they don’t really have any basis for reaching out. If you are trying to garner feedback on specific issues, be specific. If you want general feedback initially, before homing in on specific issues, say that too.
Use the right tools.
A blog may have a lovely cuddly community feel about it, but it is not the best way to garner technical feedback from a user base, unless the are highly specific postings on which people can comment. A posting entitled ‘NFS performance issues, post your benchmarking figures here’. Might just about cut the mustard, but even then people are going to want feedback on exactly how their gripe or suggestion is being dealt with. Discussion boards, polls, bugzilla… there are plenty of better ways to interact.
Be clear on what you are contributing back.
If a company wants people to take the time to contribute ideas and to engender an enthusiastic community spirit it makes sense to make it clear what it is giving back. Microsoft does indeed offer software back to the community, which is available at the Shared Source Initiative home page. Unfortunately, this isn’t linked to from Port 25
There are books to be written on the way that companies – particularly companies with a predominantly closed model – can communicate with open source communities, but I’ll stop here. In the end it comes down to clarity and transparency. It will be interesting to see how Port 25 evolves.
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