No Missiles

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Article from Issue 195/2017
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A couple of insightful commentaries in this issue are already covering the news that Microsoft is joining the Linux Foundation (see Simon Phipps and Andrew Gregory inside). Since this column is the last to get written – usually right before we go to print, I'm really supposed to talk about things that aren't already covered in the issue, but this really is big news.

No Missiles…

Dear Reader,

A couple of insightful commentaries in this issue are already covering the news that Microsoft is joining the Linux Foundation (see Simon Phipps and Andrew Gregory inside). Since this column is the last to get written – usually right before we go to print, I'm really supposed to talk about things that aren't already covered in the issue, but this really is big news.

If you have been watching Linux for as long as Simon and Andrew and I have, and you remember the era when Microsoft was busily referring to Linux as a cancer, it is almost impossible not to stop and notice the change in tone. Of course, there have been lots of previous steps by Microsoft to lead the way to this announcement, such as gradually releasing the code for the .NET framework and putting Linux instances up in the Azure cloud.

Many commentators have reflected on what Microsoft becoming a platinum member of the Linux Foundation says about Microsoft – and what it says about the Linux Foundation. What strikes me is how little it says about either one of them – it all looks like business as usual to me. Have you looked at who else is a platinum member of the Linux Foundation? Other companies inhabiting the inner circle include:

  • Oracle – corporate gladiator known for exerting authoritarian control over community projects. Ask the AWOL developers from the once-thriving OpenOffice and MySQL projects what they think about Oracle's commitment to FOSS principles.
  • IBM – massive IT giant that wrote the book on monopolistic practices back when Bill Gates was still playing with toy trucks. IBM has done a lot for Linux through the years, but it also tops the list every year with applying for and receiving more US patents than any company in the world.
  • Cisco – leader in network tech that has lots of proprietary software and megatons of proprietary hardware. They patrol the courtrooms all the time to keep competitors away from their "intellectual property."
  • Intel – a major contributor to the Linux kernel (to make it work with their processors), but another corporate giant that isn't afraid to defend its near monopoly through corporate control. Do you really think their loyalty to Linux somehow trumps their legendary special relationship with Microsoft?

Other platinum members – Fujitsu, HPE, Huawei, NEC, Samsung, and Qualcomm – each have their own reasons for supporting the Linux Foundation, but they all have one thing in common: They wouldn't be doing it if it weren't good for business, and business isn't always what the free-software faithful would want it to be. Actually, if you look at the list of companies receiving new US patents for last year [1], Microsoft comes in 10th on the list, with fellow Linux Foundation sponsors IBM, Samsung, Qualcomm, and Intel all getting MORE patents than Microsoft.

So yes, the Linux Foundation should watch Microsoft and be wary of its intentions for being a platinum member, but just know that the whole platinum circle is a bunch a companies warily watching each other and warily watching the Linux Foundation, and the Linux Foundation is warily watching the other companies, too. If this all sounds sleeplessly stressful and unsettling to you, like the paranoid gold prospectors in the classic John Huston film The Treasure of Sierra Madre [2], that is probably why you and I are not the CEOs of gigantic corporations.

When Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated the new policy that Microsoft "loves" Linux, the response from the community made me think I had tuned in to a teen romance channel. "Does Microsoft really love us or is it just another line?" "Can we trust them?" "What if they change their mind and go and love somebody else?"

Seriously folks, corporations don't love – love is a chemical thing that only happens in mammals and a few species of birds. Corporations have adopted the terminology of mammalian emotional cues for reasons of convenience and self interest, but trust me on this: A corporation "loves" you the way your car loves you. You might love your car, but your car doesn't love you – it doesn't know how. All these platinum partners (including Microsoft) are like your car. Love really isn't the way to describe what they do. In fact, it is very likely that they would be in violation of securities laws if they based their strategic decisions on emotional attachment rather than on business interest.

So platinum membership in the Linux Foundation isn't really like being comrades in the same neighborhood street gang. It's more like being in the Security Council of the UN: "Just keep talking and keep your hands on the table. You don't launch your missiles, and I won't launch my missiles …maybe a little spying and a few dirty tricks … global cooperation? Sure, why not … but hey, no missiles … OK? … just keep talking … no missiles … ."

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