True Love … and Microsoft Love


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Sep 21, 2016 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

"Microsoft Loves Linux."

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." – Inigo Montoya, "Princess Bride"

Over the past year I have heard with increasing volume about how much Microsoft loves Linux. However, I would like to substitute another word for “love”, then tell you why I feel that way.

I think that Microsoft "tolerates" Linux, and that “tolerance”, if used on someone who is supposed to be a loved one, would probably quickly cause a divorce. This is why I refuse to say “I do” to Microsoft, having fought for marriage equality I value real marriage and real love too much.

I know there are people inside of Microsoft (usually software programmers) who really like Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) either Free Software or "Open Source", and really admire the work of Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds and others. I have met some of these people and even had a beer with a few. However they also work for Microsoft, get paid by Microsoft and typically write closed source proprietary software. Do these people really "love" Linux? Perhaps, but they still work for a company that until lately was openly calling Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) a "virus" and many of them started working for Microsoft long before the love beads came out.

I talked to Linus the other day about this. He told me that many Microsoft people showed up at LinuxCon in Toronto and that it was almost "overwhelming". I explained that perhaps Microsoft finally allowed some of the engineers who really liked Linux to go to LinuxCon. This of course would not have happened in Ballmer's time, but does that show “true love” of Microsoft for FOSS, or is that simply allowing good engineers to finally go to an event they may have wanted to attend for a long time?

The ancient Greeks identified three types of love:

  • Eros - sexual love, whether "free" or for money (as a society some people tend to look down on the "money" exchange)
  • Phila - Brotherly love (from which we get the term philanthropy and the city name Philadelphia)
  • Agape - Love of God for creation, Mother for Child, true love (from time to time “tough love”, but that is an extension)

When it comes to Free and Open Source Software I believe may of us are close to the "Agape" level and I feel Microsoft is still at the Eros level (and Microsoft, please do not ask FOSS people to bend over)

Why do I feel that Microsoft's love is lacking?

Here are a few ways that Microsoft really does not show much love to Free and Open Source Software:

They support the Business Software Alliance (BSA)

Microsoft and a series of other companies support the BSA (and I am not talking about the Boy Scouts of America). The BSA is an organization that goes around checking to see if you have all of your software licenses, and if you do not they typically prosecute you. That way it is not the large profit making companies (Microsoft, Oracle, Adobe and others) that are attacking you, but this rather nondescript entity from which you will never buy anything.

This by itself would not be wrong in any way shape or form. I do not advocate the unauthorized copying and use of proprietary, closed-source software without paying the license fee. That is illegal in many of the countries where I travel, and disrupts the business model of the person selling the software. A lot of times this “disruption” by people using their software in an unauthorized, unlicensed way may result in the software company going out of business and the software being lost for all.

However, software piracy also hurts FOSS.

I have noticed that Microsoft often turns their back on what is called “software piracy”. If they were to try and enforce their software fees on everyone who used their software, many of those people would simply switch to FOSS. Many of these people need Microsoft software, but simply can not afford the large amounts of money that Microsoft charges for it.

Instead Microsoft takes the attitude of ignoring the “software piracy” until the entity that uses the software makes enough money to warrant the BSA to visit them and extract their pound of flesh, or someone in the entity's organization tells the BSA that the entity is using unlicensed software.

I was in South America one time at an event and I asked a Microsoft manager about the practice of “piracy tolerance”. He admitted it was true (he was a bit drunk at the time), and that Microsoft often gave training and even helped “software pirates” to install illegal software so they would not start using FOSS.

Another time Brazil had a program to buy computers from corporations at “end of production” for a very good price. The government was installing GNU/Linux on the systems to keep the price down. Microsoft came to the government complaining that 75% of the people buying the systems were wiping out GNU/Linux and installing a “pirated” copy of Microsoft Windows instead. Microsoft wanted the Brazilian government to install the “International” version of Microsoft Windows instead.

The “International Version” was a version of Microsoft Windows that was restricted in many ways. It only allowed a low resolution screen, only ran a few processes at a time, and could not hook up to a lot of printers. If this was what was on a computer system that someone bought, they would immediately go out and “pirate” a full copy of Microsoft Windows for their system....creating an almost 100% “piracy” rate.

I pointed out to the Brazilian government that under normal circumstances (according to the BSA) desktop piracy in Brazil was 84%. If only 75% of the people were stripping off GNU/Linux, it meant that 25% were using it happily, and the government's program was decreasing the Software Piracy rate in Brazil by nine percent. President Lula told me that his next meeting with Microsoft would be the first one that he ever looked forward to having.

In 2000 the BSA visited Ernie Ball, Inc. manufacturer of some of the world's best guitar strings. A disgruntled employee left the company and told the BSA that the company had “unlicensed software” on their computers. What really happened was that the company “recycled” their fastest computers to administrative staff without scrubbing the licensed software from the computers even though the administrators would never use the software. Unfortunately the license stipulated that the software could only be on a certain number of computers and could not be “copied”. The uproar over this caused the company to switch to FOSS for their work.

I should not complain too much about the BSA, because every few years they publish a study that shows how much “software piracy” exists in various countries and how much revenue proprietary companies take from these countries and how much the companies lose from “software piracy”. I use the reports to show the countries how much money they are exporting out of their country for software that could easily be developed and supported inside their own country, and how much MORE money they would be exporting if they did pay for all of their software. I point out that all of this money could be spent inside of their country paying a working salary to programmers who take FOSS and support it, develop it and improve it locally. I point out that the money paid to local programmers gets spent on local food, local housing and local taxes. Finally I point out that there is only so much of the <replace with local export product> that Microsofts' management and stockholders will consume. It is a balance of trade issue.

In Brazil when I try to get people to use FOSS by saying it is gratis, they say “maddog, all of our software is 'free'”, since they pirate 84% of their desktop software. Therefore I no longer talk about the cost of the software, only the value. I do not talk about Cost of Ownership, only Return on Investment, an investment that is not just about their company, but about their country. Now closed-source customers and govenments are beginning to understand.

So the first way Microsoft could “show its love” to FOSS is to fund the BSA even more, let the BSA target more “software pirates” so people would either pay their license fees or switch to FOSS.

Stop the patent blackmail

Microsoft has been going to licensees of Android and threatening the licensees with suit if the licensees do not pay Microsoft money for using software that Microsoft says violates their patents. When the companies agree to settle out of court, Microsoft then requires them not to discuss publically which patents are claimed in violation or anything about the settlement. Of course this means that the FOSS community can not study the patents (to see if they are valid or not) or know which sections of code could be re-written to avoid the patents.

This is more important than Microsoft just getting their pound of flesh for some code that they did not write, which may have existed as “prior art” while Bill Gates was still getting speeding tickets in New Mexico.

When companies start to develop products they want to know about as many risks as possible. Therefore they worry about patents that exist in code that could be used to block their product, or make it more expensive than they thought the product would be.

Not knowing what the patents are, or how much Microsoft will charge for them, or even if they are valid, the companies can not make that decision easily. Therefore they might avoid a FOSS (particularly Android) solution.

Another problem with software patents is that it makes it expensive, difficult and/or dangerous for companies to distribute code over the Internet or on some media. If there is patent-bearing code in the distribution, a distribution could not afford even a penny royalty if there are going to be millions of copies of their code downloaded, with (perhaps) only 100,000 actually installed. This is why some distributions have a separate package for royalty bearing code (usually multimedia codecs), and others have a version for the USA and other countries that recognize software patents and another version for “the rest of the world”.

The problem with this technique being applied to Microsoft's claimed patents is that the patents claimed appear to be in the kernel, and the Linux community does not know which patents or to what code the patents apply.

For Microsoft to show their love for FOSS, I would recommend them joining the Open Invention Network, or simply agree to license these questionable patents free of charge to organizations using FOSS. Microsoft could still charge royalties for their patents used in closed, proprietary software. I have heard Apple has a lot of cash on hand.

Allow FOSS proponents to keynote at major Microsoft events.

Microsoft has been coming to FOSS events for many years now. At first there was always the question of whether a FOSS event should allow someone who has been calling you a “virus”, or “a communist” or talking about your “crappy software” to come to their events, but normally it was felt that for FOSS people to exclude Microsoft personnel from attending or to eliminate them from speaking, or even to refuse to take their sponsorship money was not being very “open”. So Microsoft started coming to FOSS events, having booths, speaking, and trying to hire FOSS programmers.

On the other hand I remember several times where I was chased out of a general purpose computer event by event managers because Microsoft had complained that we were handing out free CDROMs of GNU/Linux to show attendees. At one event I was even forbidden to hand them out on the street corner in front of the event because the side walk also belonged to the venue (or so they said).

One time we allowed a Microsoft product manager to participate in a panel with Linus, and about ten seconds before we went on the stage the Microsoft manager pulled out the results of software tests to prove that for some obscure function Microsoft Windows was some percentage faster than Linux. Linus, of course, could not refute this, but he did go home and investigate the issue, and in the next release of Linux that function was two or three times faster than Microsoft Windows.

Nevertheless, I do not remember Microsoft ever allowing a FOSS person to discuss the benefits of the FOSS model of software at a major Microsoft customer or developer event, and if Microsoft really “loved Linux” (and their customers) you would think Microsoft would want their developer and customer base to know about those values and benefits.

So for Microsoft to really show its love, I think they should invite recognized FOSS advocates to speak as keynote speakers at Convergence, //Build, the Worldwide Partner Conference and Microsoft Ignite. I am sure I could find the time in my schedule to attend one or two of them and there are other FOSS people who could also help out.

Build a different business model, one based on service, not product

This will be the hardest thing for Microsoft to do. At one time their entire strategy was based on products and channel sales. Sell their products through OEMs (bundle licenses for the OS into “PC”s), distributors and retailers. If you think of this in a kind way, a little bit of profit was made by everyone along the way, with Microsoft definitely making its share of the profit.

Unfortunately, while you can sell FOSS for money, the FOSS licensing (and particularly the Free Software licensing) tends to limit how much profit you can make on a per-copy basis. The real revenues are made through service. The real profits are made through solving a customer's problems.

No one really buys a piece of hardware or a box of software and tacks it up on their wall like a shrine. They buy a solution to a problem, and even if the problem they are trying to solve is playing a game, that is the solution they buy. If the customer could play the game with two tin-cans and a string between them, the customer would buy the tin cans and the string.

This is why IBM stopped selling hardware and software years ago. Yes, IBM still recognizes that hardware and software are necessary to solve a lot of business problems, but what IBM advertises are “business solutions”, and those are what they sell. Margins on hardware and software were getting much too small for a company the size of IBM, so they went to something more and solutions.

Microsoft needs to do the same thing. They were caught by not doing cell phones soon enough (Apple and Android owned the market). The web was eating their “desktop business” and FOSS was eating their server business (which first belonged to the Unix and Large Proprietary Systems anyway).

So Microsoft moved to Azure and cloud-based applications, only to find that FOSS was there too.

Microsoft has to maintain their existing channels and business partners while they cultivate the business model of the cloud (and IoT, if they can), and it is a tricky path.

If they do go to a service-based model than they may be able to truly embrace FOSS. Until that time FOSS will forever be the “love child”.

Spread the love

"Your true love lives. And you marry another. True Love saved her in the Fire Swamp, and she treated it like garbage. And that’s what she is, the Queen of Refuse. So bow down to her if you want, bow to her. Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Rubbish. Filth. Slime. Muck. Boo. Boo. Boo." - The Ancient Booer - "Princess Bride"

Having worked for a large, multi-national corporation I know that it is difficult for the CEO of the corporation do make changes happen. Even if the upper management of Microsoft no longer feels that they should spit on FOSS advocates, their middle management (who is typically measured on profit/loss of product lines and little else) have a hard time switching gears and embracing FOSS. Upper management has to clearly articulate the strategy and often fund the path forward.

It may be that in Redmond, Washington they are dancing with penguins, but in Brazil (for example) their managers are going into companies that had switched to FOSS and coercing them to return to closed-source products. You can hardly blame the Microsoft managers for doing that, since that is what they are evaluated on, what generates their raises, but it does not make the FOSS people in those countries feel the love.

If those managers and Microsoft service people, channels and others were trained in how to make money with FOSS, then there would be little or no reason for those managers to fight so hard to underscore FOSS software. If Microsoft upper management put at least some emphasis and measurement on creating new customers with FOSS, then the managers and service people would change.

So I think for Microsoft to embrace FOSS in the most loving way, they should start creating training courses for their management and service people to help them understand how to create solutions using FOSS that delivers the most ROI to the customer. It may be painful at first, but Microsoft should have the leadership to deliver the “tough love”.

Stop talking about love and start doing love.

If I seem sceptical about Microsoft's love of FOSS, it is because I have heard it all before.

Many years ago a friend of mine left Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and became the “evangelist” of Windows NT. He told me that he would be able to “change Microsoft”. A few years later he “retired” in disgust.

A couple of years later a Microsoft manager approached me and told me how much Microsoft was investing in Linux labs and equipment. I told him that DEC had invested billions of dollars into Unix when all they wanted was to sell VMS and NT, but DEC found out that without a good Unix product, they could not sell either VMS or NT to government, education and corporations who had mixed shops. Our middle management still saw Unix as the enemy. Eventually that Microsoft manager left his position of “FOSS Evangelist” and left it to another, and then another, and then another....

A good friend of mine in Brazil, well known and respected in the FOSS space took a job with Microsoft, telling me that “they are changing”. He convinced me to meet with a Microsoft manager. I agreed, under one condition: No video cameras and no recording of the meeting. A couple of weeks later a video of our meeting (“President of Linux International meets with Microsoft Open Source Manager”) shows up on the Internet.

I have met with many other people who told me that they were THE person who was going to move FOSS forward inside Microsoft.

Over the past couple of years I have seen Microsoft donate a lot of code to the Linux kernel. However, when I really look close at the code, the code they contribute is typically so Microsoft's hyper-visor can work better on a Linux Server. This is not even Eros, or if it is, it reminds me of self-molestation.

The latest try was from an old DEC compatriot of mine. A couple of months ago he wanted me to help arrange a meeting of Microsoft managers to “learn from” a team of “FOSS folks”. He wanted Linus Torvalds, Jim Zemlin, me and a few others to come to Redmond and explain the FOSS business model, what FOSS was, and how they might work with it. “Why do you need so many?”, I asked. “Why can't your management learn some of these simple lessons by reading the Internet, or reading a book, or talking with your own engineers who are enthusiastic about FOSS? This sounds like a marketing event, not an educational event.” He denied it, but he became more and more belligerent and even angry when I declined to join in one more “see, we are serious about FOSS” event for Microsoft. Not the way to show your love.

I am sure there is more

I have given some concrete, practical and true reasons why I question Microsoft's love. I do not “hate” Microsoft. They are a business like any other business. They employ people, and they create products that people buy. I have suffered from past indignations created by their business model, but I am willing to look toward the future. However, until Microsoft corrects a few things, I do question how much “love” they have, and at what level.

Perhaps Microsoft is beginning to realize that a FOSS model creates a more flexible, faster point of delivery than “just buying a box of software off the shelf”. Perhaps Microsoft realizes that a channel can make money with FOSS every way that the channel can make money with closed-source, proprietary software (even selling it). The channel can make additional money doing the one thing they can not do with a closed source solution, changing the software to be what the customer needs.

It will be hard for Microsoft to change, and I am very aware of some of the issues. I doubt, for instance that they will be ever be able to open up their code to make it FOSS. They probably have too many pieces of code that they obtained from other companies whose licensed use prohibits exposing the source code. That code would have to be re-written. I understand.

"Sonny, true love is the greatest thing, in the world-except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that." - Miracle Max - "The Princess Bride"
I have listed some steps that Microsoft could take to move themselves toward “Phila” from “Eros”, and while that might not be as good as a nice MLT sandwich, it might be “good enough” for the FOSS community.


Since I wrote this article I had a long conversation with a very old and dear friend of mine who lives in Ghana. She is very much involved with FOSS (you might even say she “loves” FOSS). She was recently at a large computer event and one of the very top Microsoft officials was there (she declined to say which one). She sat at the dinner table with him and she mentioned that she liked “Open Source”.

The official looked at her and snapped “That war is over, everything is in the cloud”.

It did not sound as if that Microsoft person had much love for (or understanding of) FOSS. Microsoft, you have a lot of work to do.

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