Microsoft has joined the Linux Foundation. That’s right, the maker of the closed-source Windows operating system—the very antithesis of free open source software—is suddenly one of the driving forces behind free open source software (cue hair-rending and groans of mock incredulity).
The normally phlegmatic website Extreme Tech reacted to the news this week by suggesting that Hell had frozen over.
There was no immediate word if Steve Ballmer, the former bombastic fixture of Microsoft’s executive suite and long-time hater of open source software, was rolling over in his jacuzzi.
Someone has to pay for free software
On November 16 it was officially announced that Microsoft Corp. had become a top-level Platinum member of the non-profit Linux Foundation, which oversees the collaborative development of the open source Linux operating system.
Platinum membership means that Microsoft will pay (US)$500,000 annually and gain a seat on the Linux Foundation’s board of directors, joining other Platinum members: Fujitsu Ltd, Hewlett-Packard Development Co. LP, Intel Corp., IBM Corp., NEC Corp., Oracle Corp., Qualcomm Innovation Center Inc., and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.
Google, with both its cloud-based advertising business and its Android operating system built on Linux, is only a Gold member of the foundation, one tier down, contributing $100,000 annually. Cannonical, the South African company that oversees the development of Ubuntu, the best-known of all Linux distributions, is one of some 224 Silver members, contributing something between $5,000 to $20,000 annually.
Apple, so far as I know, is not a member of the Linux Foundation, despite both its desktop and mobile operating systems being built on the open source operating system BSD.
The fact that Microsoft is effectively now on the steering committee of Linux—part of the group tasked with increasing the “market share” of the free open source operating system—is significant for what it says about how far both the computer industry and Microsoft have come over the last 20 years.
A brief word from our history department
In September of 1983, under the title “New UNIX implementation“, Richard Stallman wrote in an Internet Usenet newsgroup that he was going to write an entire computer operating system that worked like AT&T’s venerable UNIX operating system. He was going to call his scratch-built version GNU and when it was done he would give it away for free. To begin with, he predicted, GNU would be a central kernel plus all the surrounding utilities needed to write and run programs, as well as a few other things.
Eight years later and Stallman had almost everything written except the kernel—which was required to tie all the other components together into a coordinated operating system. That was in 1991, the year that young Linus Torvalds posted to Usenet that he was writing a little UNIX-like operating system and that it would also be free, but “not so big and professional like gnu”.
Basically, Torvalds wrote the kernel which became the unifying element that completed the GNU project, which, all together, became known as GNU/Linux and then simply as Linux.
By 1996 Linux was a growing phenomenon and something new under the sun. Here was a commercial-grade computer operating system, collaboratively developed over the Internet by thousands of volunteers, that was being given away for free.
Microsoft and the carcinogen that was Linux
In 1996 the media loved Linux but Microsoft, still basking in the triumph of Windows 95, hated and feared the free operating system as a nascent threat that had to be nipped in the bud.
Microsoft, using a negative marketing tactic perfected by IBM, began sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about Linux in the minds of all its existing and potential customers—as well as forcing customers to sign restrictive agreements against their ever using Linux.
For 18 years, much of the FUD about Linux was slung by a top Microsoft executive who was second only to Bill Gates in public recognition—the combative and clownish Ballmer, who finally succeeded Gates as head of Microsoft in 2000.
Ballmer reached a personal best for vein-popping bombast when, in 2001—a year into his term as Microsoft CEO— he famously compared the Linux operating system to cancer.
“Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”
Ballmer dutifully continued the disinformation campaign of FUD against open source software for most of next 13 years, until he stepped down as Microsoft’s CEO in February of 2014.
Microsoft’s long-running hate campaign against Linux deeply angered and scarred the open source software community (most of whom were also Windows users).
In 2004, when Mark Shuttleworth, the head of the South African tech support company Cannonical, created Ubuntu, a user-friendly version of Linux intended to appeal to Windows users, he militantly declared that Microsoft was the number one software bug that Ubuntu Linux needed to fix.
And just six months before Steve Ballmer’s tenure as Microsoft CEO ended, I wrote how the developers of Fuduntu Linux cancelled their project after being hounded and harassed by other developers in the Linux community. The cheeky name of their Fedora Linux-based, Ubuntu-like distribution was seen by some in the community as deliberately evoking Microsoft’s FUD campaign to insult other Linux distributions!
Once the malignant Steve Ballmer was removed from Microsoft there was no more talk of Linux being a cancer. The new CEO, Satya Nadella, very quickly turned the company toward a software-as-service business model, with a strong focus on enterprise cloud computing. And Nadella began rebuilding burned bridges.
Only eight months after Ballmer’s departure, in October of 2014, Nadella’s Microsoft revealed that some 20 percent of the computational power sold by its Azure cloud computing service was used to run Linux. And lest anyone missed it, CEO Nadella himself emphasized the sharp break with the Ballmer era by declaring to anyone who would listen that “Microsoft loves Linux.”
Like polar bears love penguins?
Nadella wasn’t kidding about Microsoft’s newfound amour for open source! Right from its initial release in July of 2015, Windows 10—the bug fix for Ballmer’s Windows 8—was swimming with features lifted from Linux. And the August 2016 Windows 10 Anniversary update went much farther, adding the ability to install and run real Ubuntu Linux command-line applications inside the Windows environment!
In 2016, Microsoft also extended its close relationship with OpenSUSE, another Linux distribution.
And earlier, toward the end of 2015, Microsoft admitted the almost unthinkable: that it had created a Linux-based operating system of its own, called Azure Cloud Switch, to help run its Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform. Wow!
The degree and speed of the course correction that Microsoft has made in it attitude towards Linux under Nadella cannot be overstated. However, it couldn’t possibly be fast enough to recapture the lost opportunities that had slipped through Ballmer’s fingers.
For seven years, beginning with the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007, Ballmer continued his misplaced focus of competing against Apple on the basis of hardware. Ballmer never seemed to fully grasp that the really dangerous aspect (to Microsoft at least) of the iPod and then the iPhone and iPad was the closed channel between all those mobile devices and the cloud-based iTunes store where users purchased software and media content.
Google certainly understood what Apple was doing and quickly followed suit.
While Microsoft largely stood and watched, Apple and Google took over the mobile space and grew their combined mobile user space to exceed the size of Microsoft’s desktop base. This last fact alone broke Microsoft’s operating system monopoly, as Cannonical’s Shuttlesworth recognized.
In May of 2013, Shuttleworth ceremoniously declared that Bug #1 had finally been fixed. He gave some credit to Microsoft’s move into cloud computing, begun under Ballmer, who, at that point, still had a little over a year to go as Microsoft’s CEO.
But what had really fixed the bug of Microsoft’s near monopoly market share, said Shuttleworth, was Google’s Linux-based Android operating system, which, at that point was running on over a billion mobile devices.
On Ballmer’s watch Microsoft was effectively shut out of the mobile space—and Ballmer’s last minute purchase of Nokia’s handset division in 2014 did nothing to change the fact.
To add insult to injury, both Apple and Google opted for a business model that made the mobile operating system a free background service and generated constant revenue by controlling the sales channel through which users acquired apps and media.
By 2014, over 1.5 billion iOS and Android users took it for granted that their operating systems updated automatically and for free.
Microsoft would’ve looked worse than old-fashioned had it tried, at that point, to continue charging Windows users for operating system upgrades.
Better to rule in the desktop and serve in the cloud
As I see it, Apple and Google have, for the time being, barred Microsoft from growing into the mobile space. CEO Nadella appeared to concede as much in 2015 by writing off Ballmer’s purchase of Nokia’s handset division (and laying off most of its employees).
Nadella is building wisely, on the firm foundations of Microsoft’s strengths. Among other things, he’s growing the enterprise cloud computing business, left him by Ballmer, which leverages the company’s massive server/storage capacity.
And if Microsoft can’t go to the mobile space—the fastest-growing and most lucrative part of computing—because it’s dominated by Apple and Google, then Nadella appears to be bringing the mobile space to the desktop, which Microsoft dominates—by adding all the key modalities of mobile to Windows 10, including:
- a so-called rolling release operating system with free updating;
- a closed application ecosystem, i.e., an app store;
- tight integration with cloud-based services;
- real-time harvesting of user analytics;
- and a chatbot digital assistant.
If you can’t beat them, join them—then take them over
By joining the Linux Foundation Microsoft is underlining the kind of master-servant relationship that the commercial tech industry now has with free, open source software.
These days the Linux operating system is blood in the veins of computer tech. Linux powers the vast majority of computerized electronics, from web cams to CADD-driven lathes to street lights. Linux drives your HP printer. The Android in your Moto G phone is Linux. The Tizen OS in your Samsung phone/tablet/TV/refrigerator is Linux.
Linux powers virtually all the routers that connect you to the Internet. Linux is the operating system that runs on the vast majority of computer servers that make up the Internet. The “cloud” is another name for the Internet. Linux IS the cloud.
One way to look at it is that Linux won. It’s everywhere after all. But the way that I look at it is that Free Linux is being used everywhere like lightning in a bottle by commercial entities and hardly at all as an alternative operating system by ordinary computer users.
Note: In the original version of this post, I referred to Linux as being used “less-and-less” as an alternate OS by ordinary computer users. I was specifically referring to desktop Linux and I was wrong. In fact, the market share of desktop Linux reached an historic all-time high of 2.33 percent in July of 2016, according to the Internet analytics company NetMarketShare.
Remember though, the obsolete and unsupported Windows XP alone still has an 8.27 percent share and Windows, in total, and commands a 91.15 percent market share among desktop computer users, which is to say that I stand by my main point.
The Linux operating system has never become popular with the general public because:
- Its volunteer base cannot be made to create software to meet consumer demand.
- Without its own open hardware, it’s completely reliant on closed commercial hardware.
- Closed hardware vendors do not ship Linux computers because they won’t sell (see #1).
Linux has instead become wildly popular within the computer industry as a sort of good and cheap pie filling for any computer device that doesn’t require much direct consumer interaction (like automated pumps, smart TVs and anything labelled as an Internet of Things thing).
And it’s not as if Linux didn’t get its shot to become a popular alternative to Windows.
On either side of the admittedly solid Windows 7, were two very flawed versions of Windows—the pretty looking but abysmally performing Windows Vista and the miserable-looking but solidly coded Windows 8. Not to mention the never-say-die Windows XP, which still has an 8.27 percent market share, despite Microsoft’s best efforts to smother it with FUD.
Linux, having blown its best chance to become a popular consumer operating system (except in the unrecognizable form of Android), is left as an inexpensive go-to resource for commercial computing. Microsoft and the other Platinum members of the Linux Foundation already own it in all but name and there is no reason why Microsoft will not soon own it in fact.
Linux as a suburb of Windows
Windows 10, from the outside, already looks like a Windows-themed version of Linux Mint. Under the hood, it has several new productivity features lifted straight from Linux, such as virtual desktops, window spread, desktop search, snap view, paste into the command prompt, package management and, of course, the ability to run real Linux command-line programs.
It was Cannonical, in fact, the makers of Ubuntu Linux, that actually helped Microsoft bring the true Linux Bash Shell to Windows 10, which allows Windows users to run Linux command line programs that they download and install from the Ubuntu software repository, via Ubuntu’s apt-get command.
And if Windows can now run actual command line Linux applications, I do not believe it will be long before desktop Linux applications will be able to be run in Windows as well.
And to me, the logic of why Microsoft would add full Linux support to Windows (if it can) is obvious.
For starters, the typical Linux desktop borrows and adapts many interface elements from Windows—including the Taskbar, the Start menu, the basic File Explorer window and the right-click menu. This is both to entice Windows users to use Linux and to cater to existing Linux users—the majority of whom are also Windows users and who, quite often, dual boot Linux and Windows on their computers. Such users would likely be happy to run full Linux programs in Windows.
In Microsoft’s quest to get a billion Windows 10 users and create a closed Windows ecosystem to rival the mobile ecosystems of Apple and Google, there is no room for a desktop rival that can be so easily (and I would argue, willingly) absorbed into the Windows 10 hegemony.
The lesson of Google’s successful Linux-based Android operating system is that Linux works best as putty in the hands of a strong commercial entity with vision. By itself, Linux lacks the focus to become a dominant (or even particularly popular) operating system.
It could be argued (both paradoxically and correctly) that only by becoming a feature of the commercial closed source Windows operating system could Linux finally fulfill its stated goal of bringing the benefits of free open source software to the masses.
Anyway, that’s how I expect Microsoft and the Linux Foundation to spin the announcement, when the time comes, that “Linux” has become “Microsoft Linux”.
And won’t that be the day, for many of us, when Hell has really frozen over!