Yesterday, during an onstage interview at the San Francisco Web 2.0 Summit, Ballmer stated: "Microsoft will continue to invest in buying technology, products and market share. We'll buy 20 companies a year consistently for the next five years for anywhere between 50 million and 1 billion bucks. We will buy smaller companies. We will buy smaller companies that make some use of open source software. We don't want to discourage people who would talk with us just because they do some open source." This statement is change from Ballmer's long held hostility and dismissive attitude towards FOSS companies. Based on my experience in selling companies to Microsoft, it is a big change. The last time I sold a company to Microsoft (several years ago now), they initially wanted to remove all open source components in the product although they eventually settled for leaving in some open source components because of the difficulty of rewriting them. However, the FOSS community should not break out the champagne: Ballmer is simply acknowledging the reality that virtually all companies, certainly Web 2.0 companies, are built on FOSS. The statement is the business equivalent of stating that Microsoft will buy companies that are subject to the law of gravity.
Yet in an odd way it is consistant with Ballmer's recent demands that Linux users pay Microsoft royalties. I was discussing these statements with Karen Copenhaver, counsel for the Linux Foundation and one of the most thoughtful lawyers in the open source market, at the SFLC seminar last week and she made the point that Ballmer's statements about Linux are an acknowledgement that Linux is a real competitor to Microsoft. This acknowledgement is also consistant with Microsoft's other moves to engage more broadly with the FOSS community such as their recent successful application to the OSI to approve some of their licenses.
However, the FOSS community should celebrate Microsoft's acknowledgement, however indirect, that FOSS is a real competitor.