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News Analysis

Article from Issue 195/2017

Hey, everybody, they are still Microsoft.


Has Microsoft Surrendered to Open Source?

One of the big stories of 2016 has been Microsoft's continuing charm offensive to persuade the open source free software communities they are now "us" rather than "them." They've changed: joined Eclipse, publicized their contributions to large numbers of projects, and even joined The Linux Foundation at the highest (Platinum) level.

In response, almost every commentator has been lauding Microsoft's progress and dismissing residual criticisms – almost certainly the response Microsoft seeks. One veteran commentator even declared "open source has won and Microsoft has surrendered" [1].

To believe that Microsoft has "surrendered" is not right. They are still a company embracing the theory of maximizing shareholder value regardless of morality. They continue to do so without regard for the social norms of the communities they find in their chosen markets. That's demonstrated in part by their continuing monetization of their software patent portfolio at the expense of the other members of the Linux Foundation, which they have recently joined.

As an indication of the scale of that monetization, Linux Foundation's $500k Platinum membership fee [2] represents about one quarter percent of the lowest estimate [3] of Microsoft's income from asserting patent threats against the Linux kernel and things that use it such as file servers, Chrome OS, and Android. That lowest estimate – $2bn – represents the total revenue of genuine open source Linux leader Red Hat. At around 2% of Microsoft's revenue, it's a considerable sum, but still one that could feasibly be foregone in support of business strategy, given the will.

So it's not Microsoft's whole business that's changed to favor open source. Office is not available for Linux, and neither are Sharepoint, Active Directory Server, or indeed any other paid software product. What has changed is they have dropped the legacy leadership of their founders that saw it as impossible to embrace open source in the pursuit of shareholder value. Those legacy leaders could not tolerate the presence of copyleft software within any strategy, for what seemed a lot like ideological reasons from the outside.

The key change is thus new leadership that can simultaneously visualize proprietary monetization of "boxed products" and a belief in the relevance of copyleft community software. The result is they now have a division with executive aircover – their Azure cloud product division – that understands its future success depends on hosting Linux as a run-time environment and appealing to the developers who target it.

This business unit is an underdog in its market and has a strong motivation to embrace open source to progress. That business unit is doing a great job, and it is exerting influence on other parts of the company to play along. The Azure team deserves encouragement and praise for its stance toward open source. They are very effectively pursuing both hosters and developers and making friends in the open source community.

I seriously doubt they have embraced the commitment to developer and user freedom from which open source flows. They are maintaining proprietary control over Azure, as well as integrating Linux run-time capabilities into Windows. Whereas Red Hat has a corporate commitment to open source that results in their new products trending to open source, Microsoft's instincts trend in the opposite direction. They'd like to make Linux servers merely Azure instances and make the desktop into Linux for Windows services under Windows, rather than offering software freedom. If left unchallenged, that's the future of mainstream Linux – APIs in a proprietary container.

One can either speak just of Microsoft's cloud business and its related developer community and credit them with open source goodness, or one can speak of Microsoft and balance the actions of the various parts of the company with radically different attitudes. We want Microsoft in the community, but not at the cost of turning a blind eye to patent parasitism, to the containment of software freedom in a proprietary casing, and to the ostracism of community members who dare to find fault in either.

No, Microsoft has not surrendered, except in the sense of Greene's 22nd Law [4]. They simply have a leadership that can see open source is of primary importance in securing a leadership share in utility cloud computing. The company has indeed changed, but that change has not resulted in embracing the origins of software freedom, just the fruits of one part of its company.

The Author

Simon Phipps is ex-president of the Open Source Initiative and a board member of the Open Rights Group and of The Document Foundation (makers of LibreOffice).

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