Dear Temptee: Beware of Microsoft’s BizSpark

There is devilry afoot in the Redmond offices. That tautology became stronger on the 5th of November with this press release:

SAN FRANCISCO, November 5

Microsoft Corp. today unveiled Microsoft BizSpark, a global program designed to help accelerate the success of entrepreneurs and early-stage startups. BizSpark provides startups and entrepreneurs with fast and easy access to current full-featured Microsoft development tools and production licenses of server products with no upfront costs and minimal requirements. BizSpark also provides technical support and market visibility. BizSpark is structured to take advantage of the resources and support of a global network of hundreds of organizations such as economic development agencies, university incubators, hosters and investors, including The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). These BizSpark Network Partners provide guidance, mentorship and resources to help drive startup success.

See full press release here.

You might consider this as a sign that Microsoft wants to support small and enterprising startups, but what’s the real story behind this?

The pessimist (or realist?) in me looks back at other Microsoft campaigns to build their customer base and assumed this is yet another attempt to lock people in to their proprietary formats and systems.

As someone who runs his own company based largely on only open source software, I find it hard to understand why people and organisations would opt for systems that lock you in even if it is cost-free. The problem here is the time-limit part of the deal. After the three years of cost-free access, you will be required to pay for the services you use, or migrate to another system.

Migrating is often an arduous task and most organisations will opt for lower short-term costs in licence fees over the cost of porting their systems to new infrastructure. The long term financial costs will keep adding up though, and over time the migration process will become more complex and less attractive. You will be heading down a spiral towards total dependence on Microsoft products!

Consider now a business such as mine that is not reliant on any proprietary software or services. I’ve been using these systems for well over three years now and have paid nothing and will continue to pay nothing. Sure, there are costs such as hardware, power, Internet access; but these are common across all businesses. I might also have spent a little more time in setting up my infrastructure initially, but having been a Windows administrator in a previous life I can attest to the fact that maintaining my infrastructure after deployment is less intensive and demanding than the Microsoft alternatives.

I’m also freer than any business that runs Microsoft products. If I want to change the way OpenOffice.org works for me, I can change it, or pay someone to change it for me. You cannot change the way Microsoft Word works. If I want to recompile the Linux kernel to increase performance or hardware compatibility, I can do that. You cannot run Windows on any hardware you like. If I buy a new computer, I can copy all of my applications over and run them on both machines at the same time. You can also do this, but that would contravene the end user licence agreement you agreed to when installing the software.

So tell me now, why would you take up Microsoft’s BizSpark offer if the open source world can offer your business the same service with no lock-in, no cost and more freedom?