Microsoft and Linux detente

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 18, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

For as long as I can remember, Linux and Microsoft have indulged in mutual paranoia. So, naturally, when the news broke this morning that Microsoft had developed what seems to be a Linux-based operating system to assist Azure, social media was full of the story. It was a typical story of its kind: a vague muddle of one-upmanship and the memory of past wrongs, and all I could do was yawn and wish that everyone would get over it.The news is at least ten years too little and too late.

Don't get me wrong. In the past, Microsoft's leaders have vilified Linux as "unAmerican" and "communist," and blackmailed corporations with unsubstantiated patent threats. I have no doubt  that, if there were any chance of demolishing Linux, Microsoft would seize the opportunity in  a second. However, I also observe that there the opportunity doesn't exist, and is unlikely to any time soon.

After all, Linux is no longer the hobbyist operating system being written in a university student's dorm. Linux and the ecosystem of free software around it has long since shown itself capable of inflicting serious harm if attacked. Just going about their ordinary business, Linux and free software have driven much of the profit out of Microsoft's previous main sources of income, operating systems and office suites. Pressed too fiercely, Linux and free software could start coming after Azure next, armed with OpenStack.

Moreover, does anyone doubt that Linux's supporters -- who include everyone of Microsoft's major rivals -- would roll over and abandon their profits to Microsoft? It's a M.A.D., M.A.D., M.A.D. world -- short, of course, for Mutually Assured Destruction, and Microsoft has too much to lose to do more than nibble around the edges of free software these daysmomenteum

This situation has become truer with every year, which is why, instead of courting mutual destruction, Microsoft has been becoming more involved with free software. Admittedly, like many companies, Microsoft probably has no interest in free software and its ideals as such. Its interest is in making sure that free software users can use Microsoft products -- and, with any luck, be wooed away to them permanently.

In other words, Microsoft needs to be involved with free software because it is a publicly traded company, and needs to make a profit for its shareholders. So in a display of pragmatism that once seemed impossible, Microsoft contributes a few patches to the kernel, and regularly sponsors LinuxCon.

Community attitudes are slow to develop, especially when, as in this case, they were justified in the past. And, in a sense, free software attitudes have changed, in that the pockets of the community whose support of Linux seemed largely based on the hatred of Microsoft, seem to have almost disappeared.

When I wrote a blog post with the title, "Why would I care about about Microsoft?" in 2007), it received hundreds of page hits in the first few days after it was posted, most of them insisting on my naivety, and some calling me a traitor. For several years, it and its sequel were among the top five posts on my blog. Now, the issues they discuss is of such little concern that the two blogs are lucky to receive a hit each per month.

Deep down, the dominant reaction to Microsoft remains deeply cynical, and rightly so. Like any publicly traded company, Microsoft follows where the profit goes. Yet the reaction is as obsolete as the myths on the other side that Linux is hard to install, or lacks a desktop. So, while perhaps today's story, when more is known, can be twisted into a victory, at best it is no more of a confirmation of Linux's maturity that has been obvious for years.

Taking up the new positions
However, even if the old attitudes to Microsoft remained valid, I think it's time to move beyond them. When Linux and free software were tentative movements consisting mostly of volunteers, the paranoia was understandable, although I suspect most people under-estimated the resilience of free software.  Back then, free software was far behind proprietary applications, and seeing the fight as disproportiona was accurate.

Today, though,  the situation is reversed. Krita has become Photoshop's rival among professional artists. LibreOffice Writer is an intermediate desktop publisher, MS Word a third rate word processor. Amarok, digiKam, and K3B are each first in their class. The Linux desktops are a source of innovation, while the best Windows 10 can offer in the way of anything new is virtual desktops, which free software has had for fifteen years.

The truth is, we no longer need petty triumphs on tactically meaningless battlefields to put old paranoid feelings to rest or to prove our success. Today the momentum in development is the real sign of success -- a fact that is obvious daily to users of Cinnamon and KDE, or of GIMP or Chrome. Instead of looking over our shoulders nervously at Microsoft, maybe we should be feeling sorry for its users, stuck on a decrepit proprietary operating system.

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