Microsoft flip-flop

First Microsoft fired its volunteers -- then turned around and rehired them. Does Microsoft understand the software business?

Published October 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The open-source software movement is currently making waves by successfully building a model for software development that depends on freely contributed labor. But last week, Microsoft ostentatiously turned its back on the volunteers who were among its strongest supporters, saying that it could take care of its problems by itself.

On Thursday, Microsoft informed approximately 600 volunteer support workers that their services would no longer be required. Previously the volunteers, participants in Microsoft's "Most Valuable Professionals" program, had been rewarded with perks and corporate recognition for hanging out in newsgroups devoted to Microsoft products and answering questions from all and sundry. But as of Dec. 1, announced Joseph Lindstrom, a Microsoft director of business development, the "MVPs" would be replaced by full-time Microsoft support personnel.

Then, on Monday, Microsoft flip-flopped. Due to "overwhelming feedback" from Microsoft product users, participants and the MVPs themselves, said a Microsoft spokeswoman, the MVP program has been reinstated, "effective immediately."

The quick Microsoft switch should be applauded -- not every corporation actually listens to its own customers. Of course, there's also no shortage of irony. The original notice that cancelled the MVP program also cited "customer feedback" as one of the reasons for the decision.

Moreover, even while Microsoft gets credit for listening, the company is still open to criticism for its initial decision to dump all its volunteer helpers. By attempting to shed the volunteers, Microsoft demonstrated a baffling failure to pay attention to the current state of the software industry.

A typical MVP is a software developer or business person who works regularly with a particular Microsoft product, like Outlook or Excel. Motivated partly out of personal self-interest -- a freelance consultant, for example, can generate a fair amount of business by demonstrating expertise in a public space -- and partly out of simple good will, these helpful souls stationed themselves in the Usenet newsgroups that Microsoft administers for specific Microsoft products. Those who demonstrated consistent accuracy in their answers to questions were approved for the MVP program.

It's possible that the original decision to cancel the program had more to do with legal feedback than consumer complaints. Microsoft is already facing a potentially vast financial hit after a string of court decisions that ruled that Microsoft's so-called permatemps must be legally considered Microsoft staff -- and thus eligible for company 401(k) plans and stock-option benefits. Microsoft may have been worried that the MVPs -- already compensated with such perks as free access to the pricey Microsoft Software Developer Network -- might start demanding even greater compensation.

No matter -- the Microsoft reversal makes most speculations about the corporation's motivation for its original decision moot. But it still doesn't get the company off the hook for missing the point about how the software business has changed.

Certainly, some people within Microsoft are hip to those changes. Microsoft's own internal memos concede that one of the strengths of the open-source movement is its ability to "scale" upward: According to the so-called Halloween memo, "open source software process vitality is directly tied to the Internet to provide distributed development resources on a mammoth scale."

In other words, the strength of open-source software rests in its ability to tap the individual brilliance of millions of people. The Linux-based operating system could never have taken off without the contributions of thousands of widely distributed programmers linked together via the Internet. The Apache Web server has benefited profoundly from the cooperation of programmers who work for multiple, and in some cases competing, companies. And for years, newcomers to the open-source world have taken advantage of helpful advice proffered by good software Samaritans on countless bulletin boards, newsgroups, mailing lists and Web pages. The Internet makes it all easy -- it facilitates sharing.

The complexity of modern software practically demands such a distributed approach toward problem solving, both in terms of creating a product and supporting it. The notion that Microsoft could replace legions of volunteers with paid staff was ludicrous -- there are simply too many questions to answer. Providing free support to the vast universe of users of Microsoft products would break the financial back of any company -- even one as profitable as Microsoft. The distributed brain that is the Net excels at discovering bugs and concocting workarounds -- why spurn that kind of backup?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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