Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Jim Zemlin, Microsoft, and Rabbits in the Shadow of the Hawk

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Increasingly, reading what is actually said is a dying art. This impression had a boost last week from the reactions to comments made by Jim Zemlin, the executive director of The Linux Foundation in an interview with InfoWorld entitled “Linux Foundation: “We’d love to work with Microsoft.”

From some of the reactions, you might have thought that Zemlin was about to FedEx Linus Torvalds to Redmond to be manacled in a dungeon and waterboarded until he agreed to work on Windows 7. However, the truth is less dramatic, and the reactions only show the unfortunate knee-jerk response that still occurs in large chunks of the free software community whenever Microsoft is involved.

To be fair, the InfoWorld title was deliberately provocative. Possibly, too, it was designed to appeal to a business audience that does not use free software. Yet every major free software news site, from Slashdot and LXer to LWN, borrowed the title for its link to the interview, creating the first impression that Zemlin was contemplating unconditional surrender to the arch-enemy — and that was how a disturbing number of people read his remarks.

What was read vs. what was said

The responses on Slashdot were typical. One poster identified as Vexorian titled his comment “Linux Foundation: Please shut up” and spoke about his “grudge” against the Foundation for making statements that he disagreed with. Another poster called AltGrendel said that Zemlin’s comments “just sounds like giving in. Microsoft really hasn’t shown any signs of innovation in a long time and my fear is that this would just turn into another chance for Microsoft to take a concept from the collaboration, implement it in their own way and claim it as their own.” The same fears were expressed more succinctly by Facetious, whose subject line summarized the position: “Embrace, extend, extinguish . . . .”

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Still others saw fit to lecture Zemlin, as though he didn’t deal with considerations like how to deal with Microsoft every working day. Poster MECC referenced the fable of the scorpion and the frog, in which the scorpion begs to be carried across a river, then bites the frog halfway across simply because biting is in a scorpion’s nature. Similarly, jotaeleemeese offered a summary of Microsoft’s anti-trust violations and half-hearted patent pledges, then added, “And here you are, shaming yourself in public, by advocating cooperation. Maybe you will wake up only when they begin to eat babies for breakfast.”

Yet what did Zemlin actually say? After the outrage of the commenters, he is almost disappointingly mild. Nor is the title of the interview a direct quotation, or even an accurate paraphrase. Asked, “Are there any accommodations between or collaborations between Microsoft and the Linux Foundation?” Zemlin replied, “Not at this time, but we’d love to do it.”

That might be damning by itself, but he then went on to elaborate:

We’d like to have a place where developers can come and work on making Linux more effectively interoperate with Microsoft products. And we’d like to do that in the open-source way that’s not tied to any specific marketing agreement, that’s not tied to any specific contract, that is an open process that can be participated in by anyone in the community.

In other words, what Zemlin actually said was that he would like to see collaboration that was not a result of a signed agreement like the one between Novell and Microsoft in November 2006, and based on the free software tradition of community development.

That’s hardly a radical idea. If it’s a betrayal, then you had better start rounding up Paul Cormier, Red Hat’s president, products and technologies, François Bancilhon, Mandriva’s CEO, and Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu, as well. All of them have expressed sentiments similar to Zemlin’s without provoking the same sort of outcry. The main difference is that they have done so in the context of defying Microsoft, and therefore escaped the outcry generated by Zemlin’s remarks.

In fact, I’d go further. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who is involved in free software business or in planning strategies for the community’s future who would disagree with the sentiments out-of-hand.

If anything, a comment like Zemlin’s is easy to make because — as several posters pointed out — Microsoft would undoubtedly refuse the conditions. Moreover, should Microsoft ever agree to them, the agreement itself would be an indication of how much the company had changed, and the transparency of the community process would be the best safeguard against any underhanded tactics. Should Microsoft try to renege on the collaboration, the openness of the process would make any duplicity obvious immediately.

Contrary to some of the claims, Zemlin’s comments contained no talk of “giving in” or of extending unconditional trust to Microsoft. Nor is talking of interoperability enough to damn him — or, if it is, then the Samba team should be condemned for signing an agreement to have access to Microsoft documentation.

Same old same old

So why the quickness to condemn Zemlin? The answer, I think, is that Microsoft has been the enemy of the free software community for so long that many of us have trouble thinking sanely about it. For years, Microsoft was the dominant threat to free software, and opposition to Microsoft was how you identified yourself as a true member of the community.

Now, free software is well able to protect itself, and the community has a set of ethics and a list of accomplishments that can be the core of a self-contained identity. However, in many corners, the old either-or thinking still lingers.

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In this mindset, everyone is either resolutely against Microsoft or else a traitor or a dupe. No neutral position is possible. According to this way of thinking, a true supporter of free software could never support collaboration with Microsoft, so anyone who does is self-evidently either pro-Microsoft or badly deluded.

Furthermore, to raise the possibility as casually as Zemlin does only compounds the offense. The casualness suggests that the step would not be so momentous as the years of angst demand, or maybe even that the old either-or thinking is obsolete. Both these ideas are unthinkable to those whose identities as free software supporters is based on opposition to Microsoft, so they have to reject comments like Zemlin’s as loudly as possible, simply to preserve their sense of who they are.

In theory, it should be possible to hold a less simplistic view — one that is fully aware of Microsoft’s history of sharp practices, but does not panic like a rabbit that sees the shadow of a hawk whenever the company is mentioned. And this is the view that Zemlin is working toward when he dissects Microsoft’s recent announcement that it would allow limited access to its documentation as a move to “placate regulators” and as an effort to compete with new expectations of openness in one breath, then considers the possibility of collaboration in the next. However, the reaction to Zemlin’s general and innocuous comments show how far away a more reasoned position is for many of his detractors.

Free software does not much need collaboration with Microsoft. Moreover, the cynics are probably right that it could never happen and wouldn’t work if it did. All the same, there’s no reason for condemning the idea in the abstract. If an agreement is made, and if it contains flaws, then there will be time enough for condemnation.

Meanwhile, publicly considering the possibility is harmless. If nothing else, doing so emphasizes the ethical superiority of free software — and that’s an idea that’s worth planting in people’s minds.

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