Ballmer: Open Source is Not Trustworthy

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer effectively closed the door on any Microsoft involvement in open-source initiatives, saying that the commercial approach to software development and sales provides the best security and value to enterprise customers.

In addition, Ballmer branded open source as often a channel of last resort for software products that failed in the commercial marketplace. While distancing Microsoft from the open-source world, he half-jokingly replied "never say never" when asked if the software giant would support Linux if the market were large enough.

Ballmer, known for his frank, no-holds-barred style, fielded questions about competition from open source software and other topics at this week's Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo 2003 conference in Orlando, Florida.

Ballmer made it clear that Microsoft will stick with its current commercial software development model, and will not compete with Linux and open source systems with some type of open source model. "Why should code written randomly by some hacker in China and contributed to some open-source project, why is its pedigree by definition somehow better than the pedigree of something that is written in a controlled fashion?" he asked. "I don't buy that."

In the end, there's no one to be held accountable for flawed software in an open-source model, Ballmer continued. "There's no roadmap for Linux. There's nobody to hold accountable for security issues with Linux. We think it is an advantage that a commercial company can bring. We stand behind the products. We indemnify for the intellectual property that's in the product. We provide that product with a roadmap. If there are problems and people do have security issues, I'm [email protected]. They know where to send e-mail and give somebody a hard time about it."

In addition, Microsoft spends about $6.9 billion a year in R&D to improve its software, an effort that could not be funded under an open-source model, Ballmer said. "Most people who are putting their software under open source are doing so because it hasn't been very successful when it was sold. Why not make it free?"

However, when pressed on whether Microsoft would consider offering an application -- in particular, a version of Office -- that runs on Linux, Ballmer quipped, "You never say never." He quickly added that at this time, though, "we don't really see it as a very interesting opportunity." Namely, the Linux market on the client is still smaller than it is for the Mac, and to Microsoft, the Mac-based Office business is "a small business."

Ballmer also announced that Microsoft would be growing its services arm, but only to provide support to products implementations, not to get into the IT services business. "We will grow our services capacity, so that we can put skin in the game with our customers on their important projects," he said. "But, if we go from 4,000 to 10,000 consultants, in the grand scheme of Microsoft revenue and profit, [services] will still not be 'our business.' That group of people will be in support of our basic software business."

Ballmer also said Microsoft was looking at acquiring technologies or companies in the Web services management space. "We're focused on giving ourselves and our customers the tools to design applications that are manageable from the get-go," he said. "The work that we've done as part of the Dynamic Systems Initiative around the systems-design model is all about building the capability into the Visual Studio workbench, so that a developer can describe how his or her application can be managed when they're finally deployed."

While Microsoft has developed a strong application business over the years, there are no plans to separate it from the Windows operating system any time soon, Ballmer also said at the Gartner event. The software giant will continue to build its new application features within the Windows code base.

"Our customers would prefer to see [applications] packaged and integrated with Windows so that, if you will, you can get the simplest, cleanest design that we can possibly deliver to the market. We don't put everything into Windows. But we look for opportunities to provide integrated innovation inside the Windows product that helps reduce, hopefully, the cost and complexity. Every time we come up with a new feature we take a look -- should it be in, should it be out?"

Microsoft's greatest value to customers is building these features into the core operating system, he contended. "We essentially take cost and complexity out of the system ... as opposed to having to force our customers to cobble them together themselves," he said. "That is part of the open source world, the customer puts things together. We think part of our value proposition has to be we have to take a lot of that effort out. Nobody doubts today that it was a good idea to make a TCP/IP stack part of Windows. It was controversial at the time it was done; it's not controversial today."

About the Author

Joe McKendrick is an independent consultant and author specializing in surveys, technology research and white papers. He's a contributing writer for