Suddenly, after years of mistrust, corporate Linux is welcoming Microsoft in to its midst. Almost overnight, executives from Jim Zemlin of The Linux Foundation down have lined up at the microphone to explain how the lines between proprietary and free software are blurring, and how Microsoft has had a sincere change of heart.
Nor is the evidence lacking for this position. Since at least 2005, Microsoft has been sending employees to Linux conferences and sponsoring open source events. It has contributed to the kernel, released its .Net code, added support for major distributions to Azure Cloud, collaborated with Canonical Software to bring the BASH shell and Ubuntu to Windows, and countless other things as well.
Yet these events can equally well — if not better — be interpreted as Microsoft simply facing up to the market, and making changes to make its own products more appealing. So why does corporate Linux so consistently insist that such events mark the start of a new era of cooperation?
The Scent of Victory
An obvious reason is that, after years of Linux and free software being the underdogs, Microsoft’s interest in open source smells like victory. Linux users have joked about wanting world domination for decades, and having your arch enemy seemingly defect to your side is easy to mistake for the accomplishment of that goal.
Moreover, given the historical mistrust of Microsoft in free software circles, no message could appeal more to journalists, who are natural contrarians almost without exception. The War Against Microsoft is an old story, and the change of heart a new one — and one that is sure to quickly fill the comments sections of their articles with heated reactions.
Perhaps, too, corporate Linux could feel that recent events prove that its reactions were right and the community’s wrong. In the community, many are almost as suspicious of corporate Linux as they are of Microsoft. But if the corporate view predicted Microsoft’s current behavior, then it must be more accurate than the community’s.
By extension, other corporate outlooks could also be true. That is, open source is not a new way of doing business, with new relationships between rivals, and between businesses and customers, the way that many in the community would have it. Instead, open source is just a way of bring products more quickly to market, and for growing the market more quickly as well. Rather than the foundations that support key software, open source might be no more than a trade association of the kind responsible for the rapid growth of OpenStack and cloud computing.
The Association Effect
However, the main attitude that encourages corporate Linux to welcome Microsoft is probably far more basic: working with Microsoft lends credibility.
Working within Linux and open source, you can easily forget how small a market it is. Red Hat is the largest corporation within Linux, but, compared to Microsoft, it is a small effort, with less than 8,000 employees and two billion in annual revenue compared to Microsoft´s 114,000 employees and 94 billion revenue.
The next largest Linux companies are even smaller.Canonical Software and SUSE are both private companies, so their income is unreported, but both have around 700 employees apiece.
In other words, what is easy to miss if you are working with Linux and open source regularly is how small their corporate presence actually is. Probably, the average computer user has never heard of Red Hat, Canonical, or SUSE.
However, when a small company welcomes a megacorporation into its professional association or signs an agreement with one, its name is reported in places where it is rarely heard. By association, it becomes a player.
For example, take the case of Canonical. Founded in 2004, it has never reported a profit, although its OpenStack division did well enough in 2015 that going public was briefly an option.
In such circumstances, porting BASH and Ubuntu to Windows is not going to make Canonical profitable. In fact, the number of Windows users interested in this news is probably minimal. However, to be identified as a Microsoft partner helps builds Canonical’s reputation, lending a validity that could help to establish other partnerships, both with Microsoft and other large corporations. In the long run, what might seem like a gesture to the community in the short run might help Canonical reach profitability.
Similarly, just as Microsoft tries to promote interest in Azure, so Canonical, by adding support for Microsoft to its OpenStack solutions, can hope to extend its potential market. Given that its OpenStack department is Canonical’s most likely tool for profitability, the importance of working with Microsoft can hardly be underestimated.
Other Linux companies may not need such a boost as badly as Canonical, but none are in a position to refuse it. If accepting Microsoft as a can help them, they are going to welcome their former arch-competitor with every sign of enthusiasm.
Playing the Long Game
Members of the Linux community, still wary of Microsoft, sometimes assume that welcoming the corporation is a form of naiveté.
Instead, I suspect that corporate Linux is playing a long game. If anything, companies face a greater challenge from Microsoft than community members do. After all, Microsoft’s attempts to collect from alleged patent violations in Android is unlikely to be applied to individuals. The worst the community is likely to suffer is the removal of a few devices from the market while manufacturers re-tool. By contrast, accusations of patent violation could cripple a company’s profit.
Corporations can hardly be unaware of such a possibility. Instead, I suspect they are being seduced by the promise of respectability by association. If accepting Microsoft and ignoring past competition can help their long term strategies, then most will be all too happy not only to accept Microsoft, but welcome it with a party complete with fireworks as well. In the long run, they will probably be better off than demonstrating whatever distrust remains.