Microsoft and Linux have had a tumultuous relationship. Over the years we’ve seen CEOs explicitly express a desire to see Linux disappear. Microsoft has tried to make this happen, often by accusing free software users of infringing on the company’s patents. Even seemingly nice gestures, such as contributing to the Linux kernel, have come with an ulterior motive.
But these days the story is different. Does Microsoft really like Linux after all?
Microsoft Loves Linux
Much of the difference in Microsoft’s public behavior can be attributed to the change in leadership. In a Chicago Sun-Times interview back in 2001, then CEO Steve Ballmer referred to Linux and its licensing as a cancer. He argued at the time that open source was not available to commercial companies since using any such software would require making the rest of what you produce open source as well. That so many companies, including Microsoft, have gone on to use Linux shows the these words simply weren’t true.
As we know, Microsoft spent its time under Ballmer treating Linux as an enemy. But now the company is embracing its open source competitor. Shortly after stepping into his new role as CEO, Satya Nadella said that Microsoft loves Linux.
Members of the open source community have noticed this shift. You can hear Linux Questions founder Jeremy Garcia, former Linux Action Show co-host Bryan Lunduke, and former LUG Radio co-hosts Jono Bacon (also Ubuntu’s former community manager) and Stuart Langridge discuss Microsoft’s new behavior in episodes 41 and 49 of the Bad Voltage podcast.
Some of the points mentioned include Microsoft teams that internally loved open source software having support from senior management, Microsoft having to attract developers that have come of age (so to speak) using open source code, and a return to the days when Microsoft wanted its applications to be available on as many platforms as possible. It’s worth noting that Microsoft was later a sponsor of Bad Voltage Live at the 2016 Southern California Linux Expo, as well as a Gold Sponsor of the conference as a whole.
In many ways, Microsoft is not the same company it used to be.
A Marriage of Convenience
Much of Microsoft’s “love” for Linux centers around Azure, a way of providing a service over the Internet without setting up your own machines. Azure, first released in 2010, is designed to work with Windows and Linux alike to compete with existing offerings such as Amazon Web Services.
Microsoft and Red Hat have partnered together to deploy Red Hat Enterprise Linux atop Azure, and that’s hardly the only open source option. CentOS, CoreOS, Oracle Linux, Suse, and Ubuntu were all available sooner.
Nearly a decade ago, Microsoft collaborated with Novell to improve Windows and Linux interoperability.
These days, Microsoft has begun to utilize Linux itself. In September 2015, Microsoft released Azure Cloud Switch, a Linux distribution aimed at data centers. This was no secretive thing, as you can read about it in a post on the company’s blog. Its existence is an acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of open source software in the online world. The likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter aren’t using Windows on their servers. The Internet runs on Linux.
That Microsoft’s approach to the networking industry would permeate the rest of the company makes sense considering that Nadella ran the cloud portion of Microsoft before becoming CEO.
The thing is, Microsoft isn’t just using Linux software, it’s embracing the idea of open source. The company has made its .NET Framework open source and cross-platform. These days it sends people to OSCON. It also sponsors conferences around the globe. It’s participating in the Facebook-founded Open Compute Project. Microsoft has a history of giving, and now it’s pumping resources into the broader open source community. But why?
Microsoft Doesn’t Like the Existing Relationship
Microsoft hasn’t made this shift due entirely to a CEO’s wishes or good feelings among employees. Like any corporation, it’s responding to market pressures. Redmond’s operating system took over the world of desktop PCs, and while that ground remains contested by Apple and, increasingly, Google, Windows hasn’t ceded much land.
But in other areas, Microsoft has been left behind. Apple took over the smartphone market in 2007, and Google followed up with an open source mobile operating system that would be even more widely proliferated. Microsoft still makes a mobile version of Windows, but relatively few people care.
And as mentioned before, the world’s most popular Internet services aren’t using Windows to power their networks. Microsoft is watching more people embrace cloud computing, and most of those remote machines aren’t making Redmond money.
Even on the desktop, Microsoft can’t dictate how people use their computers as much as they used to. Many people are able to get by just fine using Google Docs or LibreOffice instead of paying for an Office 365 subscription. The adoption of phones and tablets leave many of them with fewer reasons to open their laptops in the first place. Trying to lock people into Windows services no longer comes off as a winning strategy. Consumers are embracing other technologies. Microsoft might as well too.
What Does This Mean for Linux?
So far, the change mostly affects developers and sysadmins looking to deploy or maintain your own software or systems in the cloud. Linux is one of the platforms supported by Microsoft’s Visual Studio code editor, and as mentioned before, there’s Azure.
Windows still competes with desktop Linux, so that’s where most of the company’s resources go in regards to general users. Really, most of the benefits of Microsoft’s gradual embrace of open source goes to people running Windows machines. Live Writer, for example, may have turned open source, but it still only runs on Windows.
There are exceptions. While there isn’t a native version of Office 365 available for Linux, you can now run the online version in a web browser. There are also Android and iOS apps that let you use the suite from your phone. Microsoft may not do much for desktop Linux, but it has an ever growing selection of software in the Play Store that runs on the Linux kernel.
The lack of broader support may ultimately be a good thing. Microsoft’s goal obviously isn’t to see Linux’s appeal spread to more people — the company wants to win the hearts and minds of those who already aren’t using Windows. If it can’t get them to switch operating systems, then it can at least get them using Microsoft services.
The company wants involvement in open standards so that it can have a voice in the way standards get implemented. Large corporations want to increase revenue, and for a behemoth as influential as Microsoft, being profitable means continuing to shape the technology landscape. Anything less comes off as failure. Linux users may get a few benefits out of Microsoft’s courtship, but as we see in even the most intimate of relationships, love can be manipulative.
On the other hand, people can change. If Microsoft wants to be a better person, shouldn’t we extend a helping hand?