Hating Microsoft

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 04, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Hating Microsoft has been part of open source from the start. Infamous for its executives calling Linux unAmerican, the equivalent of communism and a cancer, Microsoft has been the arch-enemy, working behind the scenes in reality almost as much as in the minds of conspiracy theorists, the proprietary and corporate antithesis of everything that open source is about.

The attitude has been so strong that even suggesting that open source was too strong for Microsoft to destroy was once enough to brand you naive, and an unwitting dupe of the Enemy.

The attitude is so in-grained that, even now, when the evidence appears to be mounting that Microsoft has reversed its position and is open source-friendly, many refuse to believe it -- and in a basic sense, they are right. Microsoftś behavior and the expectations placed on corporations by free software advocates are still a long way from being in sync.

A Change of Heart or Tactics?
The apparent reversal has been a long time coming. As early as 2005, Microsoft was refining its message, and sending its employees to open source events.

Since then, Microsoft has contributed to the Linux kernel, and sponsored major free software events.

Recently, the interaction has accelerated. Jim Zemlin has blogged about how the distinction between open source and proprietary business is blurring, and the relations between open source and Microsoft was the "great start to a great partnership."

Meanwhile, Microsoft executives from Sam Ramji to Steve Ballmer, have talked about how their company's attitude has changed. Last year, Microsoft released the .Net core code, and added Debian support for Azure Cloud. It has collaborated with Canonical Software, the owners of Ubuntu, and even released its own specialized Linux distribution.

And this is just a selection of Microsoft's interactions with open source. Further examples are being reported on an almost weekly basis.

Yet has all this activity reduced the anti-Microsoft attitude in open source? At best, a healthy does of skepticism remains.

From One Image Problem to Another
Stephen J. Vaughan-Nichols has pointed out that, for all its newfound friendliness, Microsoft continues to enforce patents against Android. Dropping the patent enforcement, he suggests, is the one thing Microsoft needs to do to prove its change of heart -- and probably won't do, because the enforcement is too profitable.

The situation is probably not so simple, but the comment does point to part of the problem. Microsoft's open source activity remains unconvincing for the simple reason that it is self-serving -- and many in free software expect more from corporations.

With Windows and Microsoft Office becoming less profitable -- largely because of open source alternatives -- the company has been looking for other sources of revenue, such as cloud services, in which open source solutions such as OpenStack are established competitors. To succeed, compatibility with open source becomes a necessity.

From a purely business perspective, this direction is clever strategy. However, the point is that it is a strategy for survival, not the moral reawakening free software tends to expect from corporate supporters. As Vaughan-Nichols points out, when undermining open source is profitable, Microsoft is perfectly willing to do so.

Nobody is surprised that a company's main motivation is profit, of course. Many would argue that no more than staying profitable is required. However, in free software circles, little credit is to be had from actions done from necessity. Probably it is no accident that those like Jim Zemlin who focus on business having the fewest qualms partnering with Microsoft -- nor that I feel a need to stress that this tendency is simply an observation, not a slur.

If you are active in open source but have more of a community orientation.Microsoft's recent actions are apt to look hypocritical. Far from softening the hatred, Microsoft's recent actions reinforce the image of the corporation as being two-faced, adding fresh grievances to the historical ones, instead of curing them.

Comparing with Red Hat

The truth is, community distrust of corporate actions is as much a part of open source as hatred of Microsoft. However, to understand the reactions to Microsoft's recent actions, it is instructive to compare Microsoft with Red Hat.

Yes, the Fuck Red Hat t-shirts started appearing at conferences soon after the company had its IPO in 1999. More recently, a minority have muttered that Systemd is an attempt by Red Hat to monopolize the Linux operating system.

However, such attitudes have never been universal. Red Hat has always been vocal about its support for open source, and retains a reputation for being a progressive place to work. When Red Hat recently announced its first revenues of two billion dollars, the results were widely seen as proof that open source works. Although there was distrust for the large corporation that Red Hat had become, the pride was at least as widespread.

A consistent story like Red Hat's is easier to accept than a reversal like Microsoft's, of course. Yet that is only the most obvious part of the story.

Unlike Microsoft, Red Hat continues to take pains to be good corporate members of the community. While some of its coding projects at least start in-house, over the years Red Hat employees have participated in projects varying from the kernel to GNOME.

What is even more important is that some of Red Hat's participation in the community gives the company few direct benefits. For example, Red Hat is not oriented towards the desktop, yet its employees have contributed to projects like LibreOffice.

In fact, some of Red Hat's contributions, such as the news site opensource.com appear to be largely charitable efforts, offering no direct benefit to the company.

Cynics might dismiss such gestures as calculated, and they may be right. Yet, even if they are, such contributions are the price that corporations pay for being accepted in the community.

More to the point, they are the kind of gestures that Microsoft has yet to offer. Yes, Microsoft has sponsored events, but such actions can be dismissed as typical, arm's length PR gestures.

What Microsoft has yet to do is participate in the community to any degree. Participating in projects with the Linux Foundation hardly counts, because that can be dismissed as corporations interacting as corporations always do. Until Microsoft can bring itself to become a part of the open source community, making a disinterested gesture or two, few community members are going to believe that it has changed in any meaningful way.

The days are long gone when simply using open source makes headlines. These days, releasing the code for minor programming languages or making your products compatible with open source rivals is simply business as usual.

Until Microsoft demonstrates an understanding of free software expectations,  the traditional hatred is going to continue with little abatement. And even that would be just the start. If Microsoft really wants to be accepted, it needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to open source -- and that is something it has yet to do.

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