What do Free and Open Source Software Leaders Think of Microsoft?

Monday Jun 16th 2008 by Bruce Byfield
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Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Jim Zemlin and Peter Brown weigh in on the proprietary software giant and its relationship with GNU/Linux.

No user of free and open source software (FOSS) can escape having an opinion about Microsoft. Microsoft products and technologies represent what FOSS users have left behind. Some consider it increasingly irrelevant, and others a shadowy figure comparable to Satan in the Middle Ages or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yet, no matter how members of the FOSS community regard Microsoft, all of us have well-defined opinions on the subject that we can express eloquently at short notice.

But what attitude do FOSS leaders have about Microsoft? The question is not just gossip or a test of trustworthiness. How it is answered can indicate leaders' values and priorities, and whether they deserve to be followed at all. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) how large Microsoft looms in the free software world, the rest of us rarely glimpse the attitudes the movers and shakers have towards it.

To help provide a clearer view, I asked a number of prominent FOSS leaders how Microsoft affected their work and personal computing, how much of a threat Microsoft was to FOSS, and what the odds were of the company ever becoming a member in good standing of the FOSS community.

Those who responded were Peter Brown of the Free Software Foundation, Jim Zemlin of The Linux Foundation, Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, and Linus Torvalds. All of them gave answers that were not only complex and nuanced, but sometimes surprising when compared to the attitudes that they are often assumed to have.

Peter Brown, Executive Director, Free Software Foundation

Left to himself, Peter Brown would have almost no contact with Microsoft products and technologies. "There's a whole lot of sites that have proprietary rubbish on them, and certain government agencies still require certain operating systems. But I generally avoid such things, or find alternatives," he says. Talking about how free operating systems like GNU/Linux have evolved since the turn of the millennium, he adds, ""I must admit I feel no inconvenience these days."

Still, keeping track of threats to user's software freedoms is part of his job. With this mandate, he pays close attention to what Microsoft executives say and what technology is in its products. "It's only a natural thing to watch the major providers of proprietary software and Digital Rights Management [DRM]," he says. However, he adds, "We're not looking into every nook and cranny. Because once you're in the proprietary world, there's not much more to be said beyond the need to escape it."

The trouble with Microsoft, according to Brown, is that it is a company just like any other company, and "companies don't have any intrinsic values. The only mission statement you need to be aware of so far as a corporation is concerned is the one that says, 'We're here to make money.'" With this outlook, Brown does not trust Microsoft -- but neither does he particularly trust other companies, whether they are proprietary like Apple or have business models that include open source, such as Google or Red Hat.

When a company is friendly to FOSS, he attributes the attitude largely to an individual who is promoting FOSS values. "See what happened to Sun?" he says, referring to Jonathan Schwartz's replacement of Scott McNealy as CEO at Sun Microsystems. "First it's proprietary and doesn't like free software. A change of executive, and it likes free software." On the whole, he considers individuals more trustworthy than corporations, but only "to a certain extent."

From this perspective, Brown thinks that Microsoft might one day become an accepted participant in free software, but not without major changes in its business model and executive staff. Unlike Sun, whose revenue comes primarily from hardware, Microsoft, Brown says, is dependent almost entirely on selling its operating system and office suite.

"What stops Microsoft from being a major participant in the free and open source software movement," says Brown, "is the fact that they can't do that in a meaningful way because of their revenue stream. If you think about it, they are going to fight tooth and nail where those two products are concerned, and that means right in our face. I don't see Microsoft being different from any other corporation in following its business interests."

For now, Brown thinks that all Microsoft can do is to dabble in free software in the hopes of attracting the major development efforts toward the Windows platform and to try to slow down its adoption. However, he dismisses the possibility of Microsoft destroying FOSS as only "theoretically" possible. Mostly, his concern is that Microsoft "can present a danger to users' freedoms, because they can prevent users from adopting free software by tricks like creating platforms that are very seductive to people, and making them want to stay there because the inconveniences of changing are so great."

A particular concern of Brown's is that, in rejecting Microsoft, some computer users turn to another proprietary company. "It's important that people don't say, 'Oh, Apple is much better than Microsoft," he says. "I really think that's missing the point. If Apple had those two products, Windows and the Office suite, they would be acting exactly the same way, give or take the executive in charge. With the iPhone, they're already showing exactly the same behavior. So that would be the final word, not to think that Microsoft is any different from any other corporation."

Jim Zemlin, Executive Director, The Linux Foundation

Like Peter Brown, Jim Zemlin considers watching Microsoft as part of his job. However, while Brown at the Free Software Foundation watches for threats to users' freedoms, Zemlin says, "Part of my job as executive director at The Linux Foundation is to monitor Microsoft announcements. Our team provides an important service to our members and the market by translating what are sometimes confusing actions by Microsoft. We look at changes in Microsoft technology that make it easier for Linux and open source applications to interoperate with their platform. Microsoft's intent to support ODF [Open Document Format] technology in Office is a good example of what we track. We look to them to publish their technical protocols under terms that are compatible with open source development and licensing practices."

However, so far as Zemlin's personal computing, Microsoft is "not important at all." His description of a typical day is a litany of Web applications and products that use GNU/Linux: "My day begins by listening to music on a Linux-based Sonos music system at home. I may record a television show on my Linux DVR and then head to the office where I work on a Linux desktop. I spend most of my day in a Web browser accessing Google applications, using our Web-based SugarCRM system and corresponding via Web-based email. I make calls on my Motorola Razr, which runs on Linux. I return home and organize our family photos on Flickr, make connections on Facebook or read a book on a Kindle reader -- all of which are powered by Linux. The only time Microsoft is relevant to me is when I receive a Microsoft Office file, which I open in OpenOffice.org and translate into ODF."

Zemlin notes that participation in the community is possible for anyone, but adds that, "It takes a sincere desire to collaborate and make better software. When this is truly a part of the Microsoft vision, I would expect the company to become a member of the community. The open source model is the dominant model for developing software, and will only increase in its pervasiveness in the years ahead.

Zemlin refuses to speculate on Microsoft's intentions towards FOSS, but clearly does not see it as much of a threat. "Microsoft is a very smart company and an excellent competitor," he says. "They make Linux better every day just by being a fierce opponent. But they're operating under an outdated software development model that no longer holds up in today's software economy. Consumers of software are demanding openness and vendor choice; something Microsoft is late to understand. Linux, one of the first examples of what can be achieved with the open source development model, is in a natural position to seize these new market dynamics. Microsoft will continue to struggle."

Richard Stallman, President and Founder, Free Software Foundation

As the major figure in the free software movement, Richard Stallman makes a distinction between Microsoft technology and actions. "I do not try to follow Microsoft technology," he says, "Because in most cases changes in Microsoft technology do not have sudden affects on the free software community. I am more concerned with Microsoft's legal threats to free software, and its attempts to recruit schools, governments, and businesses to direct and pressure the public into using Windows."

At a personal level, Microsoft affects him "not at all -- I use only free software," he says.

Asked how Microsoft affects his goals, Stallman replies, "My long-term goal is a world in which all software users are free to share and change the software they use; in other words, a world in which all software is free/libre. To the extent that companies such as Microsoft and Apple are dedicated to distributing software that denies the uses these freedoms, they oppose these goals."

That said, Stallman can imagine that Microsoft might one day contribute to free software, but only if it "moves completely to services such as Hotmail, abandoning proprietary software such as Windows and MS Office. At that point, it might make contributions to free software in a way that advances the community, to whatever greater or lesser extent. However, absent such a fundamental change, I expect that any contributions Microsoft makes will be of marginal value to anyone in the free world."

Meanwhile, Stallman states that "Microsoft is making great efforts to block the adoption of the GNU/Linux system and OpenOffice.org." He gives three examples.

First, he comments on the recent announcement that the One Laptop Per Child project, originally intended to provide computing resources to developing nations, will start shipping with Windows. According to Stallman, with this announcement, "Microsoft suborned the One Laptop Per Child project, converting it into a massive Windows training campaign. The project says it is giving the purchasing governments 'more choice' by supporting Windows as well as GNU/Linux, but those governments will tend to choose Windows by default. In some countries, people will campaign to prevent that. If these campaigns succeed, the OLPC project may yet make a positive contribution to the world. Otherwise, it will do overall harm."

Second, talking about the standards fight in which Microsoft succeeded in having its OOXML format accepted as an open standard in rivalry to the ODF format favored by OpenOffice.org and other free office applications, Stallman notes that "Microsoft corrupted many members of ISO in order to win approval for its phony 'open' document format, OOXML. This was so governments that keep their documents in a Microsoft-only format can pretend that they are using 'open standards.' The government of South Africa has filed an appeal against the decision, citing the irregularities in the process."

Stallman goes on to say "Even in less central parts of the field, Microsoft tries to weaken the community. For instance, it contributed a substantial amount of money to one project, SAGE, which thereupon decided not to move to GPL version 3." The only consolation in this case, Stallman says, is that the events show "that Microsoft regards GPL version 3 as an effective defense of the users' freedom."

In addition to these examples, Stallman condemns Microsoft because of the back doors in its security. "Windows Vista allows Microsoft to install software changes without asking the user," he observes. "You can't get nastier than that."

Yet, despite these views, Stallman also warns that, "It is common in the computer field to equate evil with Microsoft, but that is a mistake. It leads people to overlook the nasty things done by other companies, many of which are just as bad. Microsoft is not the only company whose business practices trample users' freedom. Thousands of companies distribute proprietary software, which means keeping the users divided and helpless. That is wrong no matter which company does it."

Linus Torvalds, Project Coordinator, Linux Kernel

Linus Torvalds makes no effort to keep track of Microsoft. Most of his information on the company is "secondhand," from reading general technology sites, or having journalists email him to ask for a comment about a Microsoft announcement or action -- although he confesses that he used to occasionally read the Mini-Microsoft blog "because it was interesting to me to see what a different viewpoint it was on the tech world."

"I simply don't tend to compare Linux to other OSes," he says. "I care about making Linux better than itself, and, trying to see what others are doing is not really all that relevant. Obviously, things like working well with other [operating systems] is important, but that's an area I can't really even help with, since I don't run other systems at home."

Torvalds admits that, given a choice, he will buy a Logitech mouse over a Microsoft one because he prefers to avoid supporting Microsoft. However, he calls that an "irrational" preference. Otherwise, he says, "I can't recall the last time I made any decision that had anything whatsoever to do with Microsoft."

Torvalds observes that Microsoft is already making overtures to the FOSS community, but he notes that its participation is limited because "they do seem to have a hang-up about the GPL [GNU General Public License], and are only working with "projects that they don't see as being in direct competition," such as "Web server infrastructure rather than any of the really core projects. Whether they'll ever expand into other areas, and whether they can get over their irrational fear of the GPL, I dunno."

As for any danger posed by Microsoft, Torvalds hedges his response by first observing that, "I don't think there is one Microsoft. I suspect there are a lot of MS engineers that actually like open source software and probably use it at home even apart from any work-related compatibility testing. Also, I suspect different parts of the company have very different ideas about open source, and I don't think they agree."

He continues, "That said, clearly some parts of Microsoft are pretty anti-open source software, and, yes, if they can undermine it, they'll happily do so."

However, Torvalds dismisses the idea that any effort to undermine can have much success. "How do you really fight something that is more of an idea and a way of doing things than a direct competitor in the market?" he asks rhetorically.

Torvald adds that he no longer refers to Microsoft in public the way that he once did. "I used to make jokes about Microsoft when giving talks," he says, "And I basically stopped, because I don't think the fear-and-loathing that is so common (or perhaps not common -- it's probably just very vocal) is all that healthy. I believe that if you make decisions based on fears of what other people and companies do, you aren't going to do the best job. I'd rather see people be pro-Linux than anti-Microsoft, because the latter crowd -- by being motivated by negative feelings -- is just not worthwhile in the long run."

If anything, Torvald's strongest attitude to Microsoft seems to be that it is a company that has lost its direction. "While I'm obviously not a Microsoft fan," he says, "I think they used to seriously kick butt ten-plus years ago because they really gave people what they wanted, for a low cost. There was a good reason why Microsoft could walk all over the traditional UNIX vendors. That said, they seem to have forgotten those roots, and a lot of what I see now seems to be them not even trying to serve their customers, but to control them (i.e., all the crazy rental/licensing schemes, all their silly DRM work, etc.)."

Conclusion

The first obvious point about these answers is that, although they were given by both free software and open source advocates, the differences are so minor that they could be due as much to personality as to position. All the respondents find Microsoft almost entirely irrelevant to their personal computing, and all suggest that Microsoft needs to transform itself, but do not dismiss the possibility of the company making real contributions to FOSS if it manages to change. All, too, seem to view the triumph of FOSS as more or less inevitable. The similarities are a reminder that, despite the real differences between the free software and open source priorities, the two camps remain allies.

The other point that stands out is how dispassionate the answers are compared to the sentiments often expressed by others involved with FOSS. All those interviewed see Microsoft as an antagonist, but they do so with none of the paranoia that disfigures some FOSS circles. The reason may be their belief that FOSS will win in the end -- or, perhaps, simply the impossibility of anyone maintaining a boiling rage every day and every minute of their working life.

Whatever the reason, this relative dispassion potentially puts them at odds with some of those within the community, especially those who see Microsoft as the center of an anti-FOSS conspiracy. Jim Zemlin, whose answers are milder than the others', has been attacked in the media for his views before now.

However, by refusing to see their arch-rival as a one-dimensional figure of evil, the leaders quoted here free themselves to see a more complex view of their situation. Not only do they see Microsoft as struggling with the nearly impossible task of redefining itself after so many years, but they also emphasize that Microsoft is simply the greatest of the proprietary threats to FOSS -- and not the only one -- and that focusing too closely on Microsoft brings its own dangers.

Some readers may disagree with this or that view expressed here. I do myself. But, generally-speaking, I find the mixture of idealistic optimism and clear-headed observation a reassurance that the community is in responsible hands.

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