Recently, I had a chance to talk to some Microsoft folks on how they can reach out to Youtube generation of developers. It is not a problem for Microsoft alone but it is the case with many companies with legacy tag on them, like IBM, but it stands out in the Microsoft case because of the monopoly issues of the past and their confrontational attitude towards open source. Even though I told them about what I thought on this issue, I feel that I should do a blog post and solicit the thoughts of CloudAve readers and Twitterati.
First, Youtube generation? Second, Why Microsoft?
I call those developers who are in college or just graduated from college as Youtube generation, a generation whose later teen years were dominated by the web 2.0 and youtube videos. But, for the sake of this discussion, I can include any developer in the early 20s into the fold. These are developers just out of the college and mostly in the startup world but they will be part and parcel of enterprises in the next 5 years and some may even climb up the enterprise ladder faster than others. These developers are the ones who embrace Platform as a Service (PaaS) faster than older developers and they have a soft corner for open source. They are not Richard Stallman per se but they have used open source languages and technologies from very early in their life. Most of them feel repelled by legacy technologies (and to some extent by legacy vendors) and they see Microsoft as a “bully”. They are not the ones who can fill up the wallets of companies like Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, etc. but ignoring them will put these large vendors at risk in the future. It is not just Microsoft, I have even spoken with IBM on how they can reach out to this generation of users. But I am focussed on Microsoft in this post because it is the recent conversation I had and Microsoft has (had?) an anti-open source point of view, in general. However, the dominant days of Microsoft is over and they do understand that they need to reach out to the Youtube generation of developers for their future marketshare. Though not to the extent I would like, Microsoft is changing their thinking on open source and are trying hard to show themselves as an “open” company. They are taking steps to make other non-microsoft technologies interoperate with Microsoft technologies and you can see them in some of the open standards groups too.
What should Microsoft do?
The following are some of my thoughts on what they should do and I would love to hear your thoughts too. From my point of view, I see two major issues affecting Microsoft. They are perception and outreach. Youtube generation see Microsoft less favorably (for many different reasons) and Microsoft needs to do more on the outreach front.
- One of the perceptions among the Youtube generation is that Microsoft technologies are not cool. At least, in the case of cloud market segment, it is due to Microsoft’s messaging emphasizing software while talking about services. Windows Azure is a really cool cloud service but, till recently, their messaging on that front was a mess. Now they have it sorted out but it takes time to change the perception. I do agree that one of their cash cows is their server business but their mantra should be “service, service, service,…..”. On a lighter side, I would get Steve Ballmer to come to MMS conference and do a Service dance akin to his famous developers dance. They can then talk to their target audience there (who are ops people using System Center) about how they can play a significant role in the services world. This is just one off the cuff example of what Microsoft should be doing and they have to focus in many other areas of their business in the same way. Office 365 is another thing that comes to my mind. Their software+services messaging will not sit well with the Youtube generation that sees any software other than browser as a bloatware. It is tricky with such a big cash cow in the name of Microsoft office but their messaging on that front is not sitting well either. Messaging is key to change the perception and make Microsoft technologies cool to Youtube generation of developers as well as users.
- Off late, Microsoft has been touting Openness mantra as a strategy to reach out to Youtube generation. In fact, they have offered support for languages like Java, Ruby, Node.js and other open source technologies like Hadoop on top of their Azure platform. Microsoft thinks that they are open just because these open source technologies can run on their platforms. However, they fail to realize that openness is a two way street and what Microsoft is doing is to get open source technologies to run on their platform and get people into their platform. Youtube generation of developers want two way street. They would love to see open source technologies run on Microsoft platforms but they also want to see Microsoft technologies run on open source platforms. Unless this happens, any use of openness mantra is hollow for them. When you talk to Microsoft about it, they get touchy and defensive. They start arguing that their proprietary approach to IP is on principle, etc. etc.. It is like a kid who wants to keep the cake and eat it too. Instead, I have a suggestion for Microsoft. Drop the openness mantra and instead tout interoperability. Respect the open source belief system on the other side and instead talk about choice. Tell the Youtube generation that open source and proprietary approaches are two different approaches to addressing the same problem and tell them that Microsoft is keen on interoperating with open source technologies so that it empowers this generation to move from one technology to another seamlessly as they wish. This message will be more attractive to them than any openness mantra they have now.
- They should respect open source from top to bottom. Period. There is no shortcut to this if they really want to make them palatable to Youtube generation. It doesn’t mean that they need to adopt open source from top to bottom. They can see open source as a competitor but they should offer due respect to the open source technologies. They have to realize that even if an open source project is from a competing vendor, it can have legs of its own and go away from that vendor. For example, let us take CloudFoundry. Even though it is from VMware, if they ever try to screw up CloudFoundry to help their proprietary business, there will be a fork and it will have legs on its own. Vendor association with an open source project doesn’t necessarily make that project the vendor’s sole property. Microsoft should have a healthy respect towards such open source projects because the respect is not for the vendor behind the project but developers who contribute from outside because they like the project and its open source nature. Such a respect will end up with reciprocal respect from the developer community which, in turn, will change the perception of Microsoft.
- Microsoft should stop thinking that Youtube generation is flocking to open source technologies because it is free. Even though the “free as in beer” is a small reason for its attractiveness, these developers are flocking to open source technologies because they feel empowered. This is the biggest factor for the success of open source technologies among the Youtube generation. Microsoft should understand this point and have a strategy appropriately.
- The other biggest problem is community outreach. I don’t see Microsoft in places where these youtube generation of developers hang out. Whether it is local meet ups or big developer focussed conferences, I don’t see much of Microsoft representation. I do agree that it is changing. For example, Scott Guthrie presenting at Node.js and some Microsoft folks talking at OSCON are examples of this change. But it is not enough. When I went to OSCON, I saw Microsoft as one of its big sponsors through banners but the number of Microsoft folks I met on the hallway and discussed about open source was ZERO. Sponsoring open source conference doesn’t make one more open automatically. Instead, they should be sending out their employees to these conferences to not only talk about Microsoft’s offerings but discuss all aspects of technology independent of the vendor. Just socialize with the developers, understand their needs, talk about technology advancements and, finally, briefly mention if how Microsoft is solving their problems without appearing as a sales pitch. They should do it irrespective of whether it is a big conference like OSCON or a local meet up.
These are some of my thoughts on the topic and I really want to hear from you about what you expect Microsoft to be doing. Even though I was against Microsoft in the traditional desktop world, I feel that they should stay as a competitive player in the cloud and mobile markets. They can ensure that Amazon doesn’t become a monopoly on cloud infrastructure space and Apple or Google doesn’t become a monopoly in the mobile space. I feel that such a competitive marketplace is what will empower the customers (whether it is in the consumer space or enterprises). I would love your thoughts.