A look at Microsoft's love for Linux

New Love

Article from Issue 188/2016
Author(s):

Open Source means more than just giving out a few pieces of code to an Open Source project; maddog explains.

For months, the technical news media has been telling us how much Microsoft is "Open." They point to announcements from Microsoft about how they are cooperating with The Linux Foundation on putting code into the Linux kernel that will allow Linux hypervisors to support Microsoft virtual environments better. They point to the number of patches they have contributed to the Linux kernel and how they work with Canonical to put "Linux" functionality on top of Windows 10.

Companies that were almost crushed by Microsoft in the early days are now partnering with the Redmond giant. People whom I have known for years and are otherwise well respected in the "Open Source" community take these crumbs of code and crow that Microsoft has seen the light.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Microsoft only has one partner: Microsoft. And nothing demonstrates this more than Microsoft's attempts to restrict the browser for Windows 10 to Edge, because Edge will work better with Windows 10 and be integrated better with Cortana, and Edge will integrate better with the rest of Windows 10 applications, or so they say. This stinks of the browser wars of years ago, spawned by Internet Explorer.

Microsoft's "love for Open Source" did not start with the rise to power of their latest CEO. It started years ago when Microsoft started attending and sponsoring Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) events such as OSCON. Tim O'Reilly, the publisher of many books that Open Source people know and love, would invite Microsoft to his events. Microsoft never reciprocated by inviting FOSS people to their conferences to talk about the value of Free and Open Source, however. That might have caused too many Microsoft customers to question why their favorite vendor was not following Open Source best practices, but rather forcing them to go from one disastrous operating system upgrade to another.

Through the years, many "Open Source" leaders have contacted me and tried to tell me how much money Microsoft was spending in "Open Source" laboratories with people and machines. This did not impress me, because my own company (Digital Equipment Corporation) spent over a billion dollars a year with equipment and engineers to turn out a fine Unix operating system, only to show that their main goal in life was to sell OpenVMS and Windows NT. When you have a lot of money, you can afford to have some dalliances. And, you might even learn a thing or two for your own products, but it does not show an understanding of Open Source.

Openness also has to do with your business tactics, and that is another place where Microsoft really fails. For years, they have been quietly approaching licensees of Android and demanding royalties on patents that they claim are their own inventions. Part of the settlement for these "patent infringements" is that the victim cannot make public which pieces of code that Microsoft claims are infringing. Friends of this practice (and of Microsoft) state that Microsoft has a right to be compensated for their work through the patents. With this point I have no argument. However, one of the traditional balances of patent law is that if some other non-patented way can be determined to do the same thing, the victim of the patent suit should be able to choose that different path. Because Microsoft has never approached the Linux community as a whole, the developers of the Linux kernel (including Android) have no knowledge of which pieces of code would have to be replaced.

Other pundits of Open Source (such as my friend Simon Phipps) have pointed out that Microsoft should join the Open Invention Network (OIN), which allows members to use patents for self-defense or to get patent royalties from closed source companies who do not share the values of Open Source. OIN simply says (and I paraphrase here) "if the code that is violating the patent is part of an open source project, then you cannot sue them or the end user for patent infringement, and they (in turn) cannot sue you for patent infringement on your open source code."

Even if the CEO of Microsoft loves Open Source and secretly uses GNU/Linux in his home office, what really spells love for Open Source is embracing it for your customer's needs and uses. My observation of Microsoft sales and management teams in various countries shows that there is much to be developed in good Open Business Practices.

"Open Source" involves more than just giving out a few pieces of code to an Open Source project or deciding that your closed source product (Microsoft SQL) will sell more copies on top of GNU/Linux than it will just running on your own platforms.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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