Microsoft vs. Linux: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em?

Monday Aug 10th 2009 by Matt Hartley

Microsoft has made a number of overtures to the open source community lately. What’s up?

This year Microsoft has been making changes to the way it approaches Linux and open source in ways I had never expected. Some of the areas that Microsoft made changes in are significant, while other aspects of their changes are, to be honest, predictable.

In each case, however, it is impossible not to get the sense that Microsoft is beginning to take open source software on the desktop a lot more seriously than it once had. Yet what this translates into remains to be seen.

A large code contribution

I'm not totally familiar with every single open source move Microsoft has ever made. May of them, I’m sure, reflect Steve Ballmer's negative past views on open source. But with Microsoft’s recent contribution of code to the Linux kernel, it seems that the software giant's antagonism toward open source is fast becoming yesterday's news....or is it?

To recap: recently 20,000 lines of code were submitted to the Linux kernel in hopes that Microsoft's own virtual machine solution would be able to run desktop Linux distros as a guest on a Windows host.

Now before getting to excited about this seemingly generous contribution by the Redmond giant, there are some serious factors to consider here.

  • Microsoft's contribution is totally self-serving. Nothing here is really helping the Linux community whatsoever.
  • Microsoft contributing this code is nothing more than an effort to entice users to run their OS first, while allowing those who need access to Linux to have it while rocking along with a Windows installation.
  • As per usual, Microsoft is playing catch-up with its Virtual Machine competitors. And in playing catch-up, what a better way to give oneself an edge than by asking that beneficial code to be included with the Linux kernel.

Last I heard, Linus Torvalds himself seemed fine with the idea of playing ball with Microsoft so long as they played by the same rules as the rest of us. And I can respect that position.

But I would also point out that even if the code is inspected as acceptable for kernel inclusion, poor motives for submission are still enough to spoil things for the end user in the long haul. Ever hear of the saying: "It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch." Well, if there was ever a circumstance in which this was true, I believe this to be it.

A new, more accessible Microsoft

The previous statement provides a sour note, I realize. And with all the apparent support that Microsoft is showing the open source community these days, how could I possibly harbor such ill feelings toward the software powerhouse?

Microsoft throwing money at various open source projects is not ultimate proof that they have suddenly changed their view of the open source concept, as far as I’m concerned. In my view, it is simply a matter that they realize just how big of a threat Linux really is to them over the long haul.

Microsoft realizes full well that they cannot take on something that does not have a singular company that can be sued, bought out or otherwise threatened financially. They must "join us" in order to take Linux and other open source projects out of the picture by perverting the original vision of unbiased cooperation.

Competing with the cloud or enticing non-Windows users?

Consider it: Microsoft Office, at no cost to the end user, available over the cloud. This by itself sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. If this were to happen, there would have to be some IE8-only clause along the way so Microsoft can take their usual vendor lock-in approach, right?

Nope, not from what I’m able to tell. Instead Microsoft is simply requiring people to install Silverlight to see how the Web-based version of Office is going to run.

So while we do have the option of installing the ever-buggy Moonlight plug-in for Firefox just to see how Office 10 will potentially work based on video demos, Microsoft knows full well the odds of anyone bothering to do this are slim at best. Wait, it gets better.

What happens when I install the Moonlight plug-in for Firefox? Nadda, nothing, zip.

Even after restarting the browser with Moonlight enabled, I’m still presented with the same prompt to install Silverlight on a supported platform. Perhaps it is something up with my current installation of Firefox, I don't know. But clearly, I am not going to bother spending much more time trying to troubleshoot a multimedia technology that is so obviously not supported with my platform.

Based on my frustration in simply trying to view the demo videos for Office 10, I can only conclude that this new "cross platform" Web-based alternative to a fully installed copy of MS Office is not viable. Despite being able to reportedly work with Firefox, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that there’s no chance that Office 10 will work with Linux.

While it appears that Office 10 on the Web does offer some things that Google Docs lacks, Microsoft continues to lock people into file formats rather than using truly open source file formats that are readily accessible to all without dancing around yet more Microsoft patent headaches.

Trust, but verify

I think when it comes to Microsoft participating with the open source community, we should borrow a famous phrase from our Cold War past: trust, but verify. I see Microsoft and the open source/Linux communities as being about as friendly as the U.S. was with the USSR during the cold war.

Outside of some legal action over FAT and TomTom, there has been little recent activity with regard to lawsuits that could potentially be a threat to Linux projects throughout the world. So yes, Microsoft is welcome to contribute code. But I would encourage those accepting Microsoft's code to explore all possible motivations for the contribution. This means looking beyond the obvious.

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