Which Microsoft are we dealing with?

Dave Stutz likes Microsoft Corp. Windows – he thinks it “makes a hell of a good client.” But Stutz also believes that if Windows, Office and other Microsoft products remain PC-centric, they’re in trouble.

“The biggest opportunity is no longer the client,” he writes. “Networked software will eventually eclipse client-only software. . . . If the PC is all that the future holds, then growth prospects are bleak.”

That’s what Stutz told his fellow Microsoft employees in the memo he sent out just before he left the company on Feb. 7. But it’s not what he said that should worry us.

It’s what he didn’t quite say.

Stutz is a true believer. He spent more than a decade at Microsoft, most recently as the guy in charge of Microsoft’s “shared source” projects. Before that he spent time as the architect for Visual Basic and as a member of the Microsoft technical strategy brain trust.

So when he says Microsoft “must survive and prosper by learning from the open source software movement and by borrowing from and improving its techniques,” that’s pretty much guaranteed to grab attention – and it has. You can read an edited version of Stutz’s parting shot on his Web site at www.synthesist.net.

What won’t get as much attention are the things he edges around. Stutz doesn’t come right out and talk about the state of Microsoft. He puts his concerns in the form of predictions and warnings, which make them sound innocuous enough. After all, they haven’t actually happened yet, right?

But we know from experience that an insider’s predictions in this industry often aren’t predictions – they’re thinly veiled descriptions of things that are already going on.

So when Stutz suggests that the next few years could “have the side-effect of changing Microsoft into a place where creative managers and accountants, rather than visionaries, will call the shots,” is he predicting – or describing?

When he says that “digging in against open source commoditization won’t work” and argues that “any move towards cutting off alternatives by limiting interoperability or integration options would be fraught with danger,” is he warning against possible Microsoft strategies or just pointing out the way things are?

When he warns that “Microsoft cannot prosper during the open source wave as an island, with a defense built out of litigation and proprietary protocols,” is he sketching a possible tomorrow or spelling out today’s reality?

These are words that should worry corporate IT people. The Microsoft that Stutz is not-quite-describing isn’t a software vendor that can help us succeed. This is Fortress Microsoft, hunkered down with a siege mentality and at war not just with competitors but also with what customers need.

Never mind whether Microsoft “embraces the diversity of the open source approach,” as Stutz suggests it should. A Microsoft that has shifted into fortress mode won’t help us solve our IT and business problems. A Microsoft that’s focused on limiting our integration options will make it harder, not easier, to keep things working together.

A Microsoft armouring itself with litigation and proprietary protocols is worse than useless to us – it would actually be hostile to corporate IT’s ability to do its job.

That would be an awful waste, both of Microsoft’s investment in technology and of our investment in Microsoft.

But if this really is the Microsoft we’re facing going forward, then it’s time to make some hard decisions about how we’ll deal with a vendor that can’t provide what we need from it.

And if it’s not the Microsoft we’re facing, maybe it’s time for someone who’s still at Microsoft to come right out and say so.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld (U.S.) senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.