Microsoft PR flubbed its cool endorsement of open source

Image: Microsoft Azure Blog

Microsoft made a huge announcement yesterday in support of Linux and Open Source. Its actions were startling. Its statements, not so much.

There was plenty of news coverage. Here’s how Engadget described it:

Microsoft open-sources 60,000 patents to help Linux avoid lawsuits

The company as joined the Open Invention Network to keep Linux safe

Microsoft announced that it’s joining the Open Invention Network, an open-source patent group that’s dedicated to protecting linux from lawsuits. And in the process, Microsoft has made 60,000 of its patents open source.

This is a surprise to many in the developer community as Microsoft has been notoriously protective of its patents. Android and Samsung have even had to pay billions because of infringements, so Microsoft has a vested financial interest in keeping a tight grip.

But Microsoft wants to change its reputation, and show how developer-friendly it can be. Developers “want to deploy technologies at the edge–on any device–that meet customer needs,” said Eric Anderson, corporate vice president and deputy general counsel. “We also learned that collaborative development through the open source process can accelerate innovation.”

So why were the announcements so tepid?

When I read this sort of news, I always go back to the company’s original announcement, press release, or blog post to see what they actually said. Usually the press release is overblown and inflated compared to the actual news. But in this case, the company’s blog post is sort of meh.

Here’s some of what Microsoft Corporate VP Erich Andersen wrote on the Microsoft Azure blog yesterday. Commentary is mine:

Microsoft joins Open Invention Network to help protect Linux and open source

 Corporate Vice President, Deputy General Counsel

I’m pleased to announce that Microsoft is joining the Open Invention Network (“OIN”), a community dedicated to protecting Linux and other open source software programs from patent risk.

Commentary: The title and lede are strong and clear. The post is written in the first person, instead of being a bland press release. Great start.

We know Microsoft’s decision to join OIN may be viewed as surprising to some; it is no secret that there has been friction in the past between Microsoft and the open source community over the issue of patents. For others who have followed our evolution, we hope this announcement will be viewed as the next logical step for a company that is listening to customers and developers and is firmly committed to Linux and other open source programs.

Commentary: Why start on the defensive? Start with facts. Microsoft is giving up licensing fees on 60,000 patents. That’s the news.

Since its founding in 2005, OIN has been at the forefront of helping companies manage patent risks. In the years before the founding of OIN, many open source licenses explicitly covered only copyright interests and were silent about patents. OIN was designed to address this concern by creating a voluntary system of patent cross-licenses between member companies covering Linux System technologies. OIN has also been active in acquiring patents at times to help defend the community and to provide education and advice about the intersection of open source and intellectual property. Today, through the stewardship of its CEO Keith Bergelt and its Board of Directors, the organization provides a license platform for roughly 2,650 companies globally. The licensees range from individual developers and startups to some of the biggest technology companies and patent holders on the planet.

Commentary: Background. This is a big deal. Why spend the space on OIN’s history this early in the announcement?

Joining OIN reflects Microsoft’s patent practice evolving in lock-step with the company’s views on Linux and open source more generally. We began this journey over two years ago through programs like Azure IP Advantage, which extended Microsoft’s indemnification pledge to open source software powering Azure services. We doubled down on this new approach when we stood with Red Hat and others to apply GPL v. 3 “cure” principles to GPL v. 2 code, and when we recently joined the LOT Network, an organization dedicated to addressing patent abuse by companies in the business of assertion.

Commentary: Now you dive into legal-technical jargon?

At Microsoft, we take it as a given that developers do not want a binary choice between Windows vs. Linux, or .NET vs Java – they want cloud platforms to support all technologies. They want to deploy technologies at the edge – on any device – that meet customer needs. We also learned that collaborative development through the open source process can accelerate innovation. Following over a decade of work to make the company more open (did you know we open sourced parts of ASP.NET back in 2008?), Microsoft has become one of the largest contributors to open source in the world. Our employees contribute to over 2000 projects, we provide first-class support for all major Linux distributions on Azure, and we have open sourced major projects such as .NET Core, TypeScript, VS Code and Powershell.

Commentary: More jargon. Is this supposed to excite development geeks? If so, fine, but development geeks want facts, not generalizations like “we take it as a given that developers do not want a binary choice” and “We also learned that collaborative development through the open source process can accelerate innovation.”

Now, as we join OIN, we believe Microsoft will be able to do more than ever to help protect Linux and other important open source workloads from patent assertions. We bring a valuable and deep portfolio of over 60,000 issued patents to OIN. We also hope that our decision to join will attract many other companies to OIN, making the license network even stronger for the benefit of the open source community.

Commentary: Lede. Buried.

We look forward to making our contributions to OIN and its members, and to working with the community to help open source developers and users protect the Linux ecosystem and encourage innovation with open source software.

Commentary: Sorry, were you talking? I fell asleep.

This is actually Microsoft’s second announcement of the month around patents. It also announced that last week that it was using its patent portfolio to help defend companies against patent trolls.

Thank the Lord for Engadget and the rest of the technical media for clarifying this, because Microsoft’s public relations team muffed this one.

How to announce a big shift

I love Microsoft’s straightforward tone here, but it could have done a lot better on this announcement. Here are a few tips for corporate PR pros in a similar situation:

  • If you’re changing, don’t try to hide it. I wonder if the way Microsoft did this was due to internal disagreement about its support for open source. The announcement is clearly in favor of it, but the fact that it appears on the Azure blog, rather than in a more prominent place on the Microsoft site, and that the posts are so dull, makes it seem like they’re shy about it. Well, that doesn’t work. A big deal is a big deal. Hiding and mumbling while you talk about it just means allowing journalists and opponents to take control of your story.
  • Don’t bury the lede. If you’re licensing 60,000 patents to an open source community, say that at the top, not the bottom.
  • Explain the significance clearly, not with generalizations. Erich Andersen said, “We also learned that collaborative development through the open source process can accelerate innovation.” Why not be more forceful? “We love open source. We’ve changed our minds about that. It’s now central to the Microsoft strategy, and we’ll license as many patents as we can, at no charge, to support it.”
  • Put the history and jargon in the back half. From a story perspective, you might think you have to explain the background first. But that’s not the way announcements work. First tell what you’re doing and why. Then give us the background and the details. Anyone who really cares will wait around to read about GPL v. 3 “cure” principles, and the rest of us won’t have to wade through it to get to the news.

Note that none of this is about using weasel words like “groundbreaking” or “incredible.” Lead with facts. All Microsoft had to do was put the fascinating facts at the top and then explain the philosophy behind them.

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