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.
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."