Microsoft, there is a way to win our trust

Primary tabs

By now, most of you in the tech sphere will have gotten wind of this: Microsoft hearts Linux!   Which is, of course, because Microsoft's multi-billion dollar-per-year marketing machine has made sure you'll see it.

This newly declared love for Linux and all things open source is a complete reversal from the consistent policy of Microsoft for the 25ish years prior, where they, at first, laughed off Linux and open source, and then decided it was "threat number one" to various Microsoft platform monopolies, with former CEO Steve Ballmer making his position pretty clear by saying "Linux is a cancer" (apparently, he's completely changed his tune, since...).

It occurs to me that there're many different meanings to the word "love", and it's quite important to work out which one Microsoft has in mind when it makes its oft cited claim.

The purpose of this post is to explain why I think it's both justified and crucial to be very skeptical of these claims from Microsoft, and what Microsoft can do to allay our well-warranted doubts. And Microsoft, in keeping with the open source tradition from which it arises, I hope you take this unsolicited tunking in the way it's intended.

Credible Change?

Over the past few decades, Microsoft has done much behind the scenes to make the playing field as inhospitable as possible for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) - things like funding the SCO suit against Linux users, a bunch of other patent troll activity (including a protection racket which costs most Android OEMs at least $10/unit in "royalties" to Microsoft - coincidentally, they make far more from Android than they ever did from WindowsPhone, just sayin') trying to get various countries to declare FOSS illegal in government (to get a big price break in MS software licenses), avoiding, at all costs, true vendor-neutral open standards, and developing innovative new forms of deception and competitive threat mitigation.

But no matter - they've completely changed now! They've said so! There're at least dozens of dedicated young open source developers beavering away among their hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. Perhaps 0.01% of their combined source code is now available under an open source license...

Most people - and certainly the world's mainstream tech media - have taken them at their word, and have fallen all over themselves declared the start of a new era. Microsoft now trumpets that it's the "top contributor to the Linux kernel" (albeit briefly) and has even become a platinum member of the Linux Foundation (which employs Linus Torvalds, the founder and benign-ish meritocrat of the Linux kernel).

Leopard and spots?

So, what's wrong with this! Shouldn't we be overjoyed that the leopard has changed his spots?

Well... maybe. Thing is, there're lots of self-interested reasons that Microsoft could be undertaking this gushy charm offensive... that have nothing to do with love in the sentimental sense. The question is: when Microsoft says it "loves" Linux and open source, does that mean it loves them in an "undying admiration, will do anything for it" sort of way, or in a "cat loves mice" sort of way? Many of us old-timers are extremely skeptical, to say the least.

Many people accuse us (me, especially) of being "party poopers" and "negative"... hmm.

Existential Threat

Let's remember, folks, that Microsoft is one of the biggest of the biggest ever megacorporations in human history. It has revenues that dwarf most national economy GDPs. They are the definition of an existential threat - most governments (and businesses and institution) in the world don't even fully grasp how screwed they really are for having become dependent on Microsoft. They could literally kill the world's economic activity tomorrow, either through incompetence or spite. I think we need to look at this all very carefully.

(Update 2020-05: turns out folks in Germany have - here's the full report in the original German)...)

The MegaCorporate Agenda

Remember, too, that Microsoft is a public listed US-based corporation, and that dictates its single priority: maximise shareholder value. They are used to 25ish years of massive, global platform (Windows) and application (MS Office) monopoly lock-in that they've been able to ruthlessly exploit. That's why they're hovering around the trillion dollar market capitalisation mark. They have a lot of influence over governments and institutions in the world. They exemplify the relationship between a proprietary software developer and its users - the power dynamic is inherently stacked in favour of the developer. In fact, it is fair to say that all proprietary software that makes use of proprietary formats is effectively indistinguishable from ransomware: if the user stops paying the developer for the software, they may well lose all access to their own content created in that software. Yup.

Copyright and Copyleft

FOSS exists to create a level playing field and to correct that power imbalance. FOSS uses the mechanisms of copyright (just like Microsoft's EULAs do) to enforce the idea that "the user = the developer". This is, in effect, the opposite of Copyright's default "all rights reserved", where all rights rest with the creator (or, more to the point, the 'rights holder' entity to whom the creator has sold those rights). That's why a significant family of FOSS licenses are called "Copyleft". Even with its breathless declarations of love for open source, you'll note that Microsoft never says "Free and Open Source". That's because the "Free and" is usually stuck in there by people like me to mean "The 'weak' open source licenses as well as the stronger Copyleft licenses". Microsoft just likes the weak ones... because that allows them to, at some point in future, and at their discretion, to proprietarise software that's licensed under them. Some folks think that Microsoft has actively been engaging in a quiet effort to gain influence in the FOSS world, and, among other things, kill off support for Copyleft licenses. Some people see that as another agenda motivating them to buy Github...

Buying Influence

WIth their new seat on the Linux Foundation board, we're now seeing the fox presiding over the hen house. Should we be worried? Hmm - a few people with special insight into the situation seem to think it's certainly worth being incredulous... Bryan Lunduke, a Microsoftie for 10 years, I believe, sums it up succintly: "Microsoft is buying control of LInux. We might not like it, but it's happening". And not just Linux. He explains his position very effectively:

So, we get to the meat of it. What could Microsoft do to earn the trust of the FOSS community - and my trust?

Microsoft's path to FOSS credibility

It's easy. Microsoft could make good on its declarations of love for Linux and open source, right now. It could do the software analogue of "putting a ring on it" smiley. All that Satya Nadella would need to do is to announce that Microsoft will be making all of its currently proprietary software open source. All of it. (doesn't have to be Copyleft licenses, but that'd help to alleviate any lingering doubt that many of us old school Free Software folk might have...) He could then provide a schedule to provide time frames in which this would all take place. He would describe how there were certain barriers to open sourcing some of their software, due to component licensing agreements with other entities, and he'd describe how those would either be mitigated through negotiation... or acquisition.  Because we all know Microsoft could buy any corporation it saw as strategically relevant - like the $7.5 billion they just paid for Github.

I think, if Microsoft does not provide this demonstration of good will to the FOSS community, then we have not choice but to continue seeing them as the existential threat they are, and work to minimise the control we allow them to buy. Because, in that case, the only real conclusion we can come to is that Microsoft still thinks it can kill Linux and FOSS - it's just in the early stages of a classic gambit from the Microsoft playbook: Embrace, Extend, Extinguish.

In the meantime, given the evidence to date, the most plausible interpretation of Microsoft's "love" for Linux and open source... like the love that a tapeworm has for a healthy digestive system.

Add new comment

Note to commenters: due to problems with spam comments, your comment will only appear on this site after it's been deemed (by me) to be legitimate.