When Pigs Fly


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Nov 14, 2014 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Several people have asked on their Facebook pages what I think about Microsoft's president first announcing that Microsoft loves Open Source, and then announcing that .Net will be “Open Source”. I suppose that these people expected me to start singing “Kumbaya”, and hugging the closest Microsoft representative I could find. Instead of answering that same question from so many pundits in so many places, I will answer it here.

I think my feelings run somewhere between “When pigs fly” and “When Hell Freezes Over” will Microsoft embrace the true spirit of Open Source, much less Free Software.

I will admit that some of my feelings are historical, and perhaps relate to the Microsoft of Bill Gates and “What was his name”, but they run deep, and for lots of reasons.

I remember little incidents like:

  • being tossed out of a multi-vendor trade show because I was handing out CDs of Free Software to people going upstairs to a Microsoft event, then being told by the building manager I could not even hand them out in front of the building because they owned the sidewalk and Microsoft, their “tenant”, was complaining
  • being told by a Microsoft product manager that Microsoft encouraged software piracy (while at the same time financing the Business Software Alliance and their anti-piracy lawsuits) because the alternative to software piracy was that the software pirates might use Free Software.
  • having friends of mine from Digital Equipment Corporation and the Open Source community tell me that they were going to work for Microsoft because they were going to “change Microsoft's ways” only to have them quit Microsoft a year or two later, broken and finally understanding the fact that Microsoft did not want to change. To be fair (or as fair as I will be in this blog entry), the same thing happened with Open Source friends going to Sun Microsystems, Apple, Oracle and others.
  • Watching while Open Source organizations and trade shows welcomed Microsoft to come talk to FOSS customers and developers, but realizing that true Free Software people would never be welcomed to talk at a Microsoft user or developer event.

I have known a lot of the “Microsoft Open Source Evangelists” over time. They would tell me about the investment that Microsoft was putting into Open Source, and the laboratories that Microsoft had running Open Source software.

I had seen it all before.

I worked for a company (Digital Equipment Corporation) that invested billions of dollars into creating what was considered by many the world's best Unix system on the world's fastest microprocessor, but our salespeople did not want to sell it. Upper management did not really push it. While we created a certain amount of revenue from it, the main thrust of our Unix product was because certain of our VMS customers would not buy our hardware unless there was a good Unix system on it. So our salespeople mostly sold VMS and Windows NT.

So I am not impressed by a company that only spends millions of dollars on lab equipment so they can sell billions of dollars of their software.

Of course some people will point out some of the more recent things that Microsoft has done:

  • Microsoft has made money off “Open Source”. Taking technologies mostly from MIT or BSD licensed software, they took code written and contributed by other people and worked them into Microsoft products. They are not alone in this, and I do not “blame them” for doing it. They obeyed the letter of the law.
  • Threatening to sue other companies for patent infringement, but not willing to tell the Android/Linux community what patents they feel were being violated so we could avoid them...or dismiss them.
  • Contribute patches to the Linux kernel, but usually in the areas of hypervisors, to allow Microsoft's hypervisors to work well on top of the Linux kernel....the same kernel for which they are blackmailing....er, ah, charging patent royalties.

The biggest issue (and the one that most distresses me) is how some of the people who are giddy over Microsoft saying the term “Open Source” seem to have forgotten what “Open Source” and “Free Software” (FOSS) are all about.

The FOSS movement did not start so large (or even small) companies could get free labor to make their products. The movement did not start to facilitate companies trying to regain the control of the industry by saying magic words.

The movement started to give control of the end-user's software back to the end user. To allow the end user to decide that they were either going to use the software the way they received it (as they would with a closed-source product), or make the decision to change the software to what they needed.

The community of developers and end-users determine what the software should look like, how it should behave, and how it should be licensed. The community owns the software, not a company.  This is what “Open Source” and “Free Software” mean.

Of course, if all you want to do is try to re-establish yourself as a mainstream platform provider, to once again try to tell end users when to upgrade, what architectures they can use and how many people that can use your software, what better way than to stick your middleware between the applications and a real operating system?

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