Can Microsoft Ever Be Accepted by the Linux Community?

Microsoft has made a number of conciliatory gestures toward open source. Are they enough?
Posted September 15, 2009

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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Once, the CEO of the company for which I worked had a bright idea. He would sponsor a young open source software coder for the summer, and, in return, the coder would assign the copyright of his application to the company.

Fortunately, the young coder consulted some lawyers in his family, and refused. His application went on to become a basic tool in the administration of the free desktop. The company, like so many in the Dot-com era that tried to prey upon free software, went bankrupt. The last I heard, the CEO was a supplier to health food stores.

The situation was one of several that caused me to quit the company. But I have flashbacks whenever I see Microsoft maneuvering around free software. When Microsoft alternately tries to attack free software -- for instance, by attempting to sell patents that may affect Linux to patent trolls -- and to ingratiate itself -- for instance, by creating the open source CodePlex Foundation -- I see simply a large scale version of the CEO's behavior.

Both are examples of corporate efforts to exploit free and open source software (FOSS) without changing traditional business practices. Both exhibit a kind of arrogance, as though nobody has attempted such exploitation before -- and as though the community had its collective head too high in the clouds to understand what was being attempted.

Some, like Miguel de Icaza, read recent news such as the creation of the CodePlex Foundation as "another step in the right direction" for Microsoft.

But, for the most part, Microsoft's mixed signals can only gain it a reputation for duplicity, especially given its long history of hostility towards FOSS.

Even Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, who in the past has given Microsoft the benefit of the doubt and once went so far as to issue a joint letter with Microsoft, has to admit that, in the case of the patent sales, "Yes, Microsoft Got Caught." Under the circumstances, the community's inability to give any credit to the CodePlex Foundation is only understandable.

Of course, mixed signals are common enough in business. Like any mega-corporation, Microsoft is far too large to speak with a single voice. The odds are that some Microsoft employees are genuinely interested in FOSS, even if Steve Ballmer remains utterly opposed to it. Perhaps, too, Microsoft strategists are fumbling, and unable to devise a coherent FOSS strategy.

But, for those of us outside Microsoft, the mixed messages can only suggest deception and hostility -- or, at best, indecision. From a marketing viewpoint, they are a public relations disaster, especially given the long memories in the FOSS community.

All of which raises the question: Could Microsoft ever be accepted in the FOSS community? What would it take for such a transformation to occur?

An uphill battle

Some would immediately answer that Microsoft could never be seen as a good citizen of the community. The history of shared suspicion between Microsoft and FOSS is simply too long.

Still others are heavily invested in hating Microsoft. For them to admit a change would meaning losing their entire sense of identity.

Yet such a change is not completely inconceivable. Several years ago, Sun Microsystems went from being castigated for keeping Java's code proprietary to being praised by Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen for releasing it.

In fact, many tech corporations, from Dell to Hewlett-Packard and IBM, have gone from being regarded as hostile to FOSS to being at least partly accepted in the community.

Admittedly, none of these companies was ever hated and derided in the community the way that Microsoft is. But the changes in how they are perceived suggest that the change is not impossible.

Buying a stairway to heaven

If the last few years have shown anything, it is that Microsoft cannot buy its way to acceptance (assuming, of course, that it consistently wants to). Microsoft has spent what for other companies must be a small fortune buying online ads to sites such as Newsforge, sponsoring Linuxworld, and donating to projects like Apache, yet all of it is largely wasted.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Microsoft, Linux desktop

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