Recently I saw “Microsoft and open source” flash across my LinkedIn notifications on my phone. The LinkedIn app then crashed and I couldn’t find the post, which was linked to Ross Gardler, Microsoft’s principal program manager for Azure Container Services.
I know what it said without reading it. Same thing it has said for years: Kindler, gentler Microsoft loves open source.
I used to follow Microsoft's intellectual property Twitter account in order to see exactly how much Microsoft loved open source as it bragged about all the people it had coerced into signing patent agreements. I guess someone realized that crowing about that was not a great idea, because today the feed tweets puff pieces about how great software patents are and how they drive innovation (through litigation).
The truth is that Microsoft’s principal open source strategy hasn’t changed and probably never will. The point of open source to Microsoft (or any other company) is to give you an on-ramp to its platform. For Microsoft, that platform is morphing from Windows to Azure, so of course Microsoft has dialed back its rhetoric toward Linux. If you read Microsoft hates Linux, then you probably won’t host your VMs on Azure -- same deal if you have a choice between two virtual private clouds. Duh, Microsoft loves Linux ... on Azure. Why wouldn’t it?
Microsoft may even be willing to accept open source that's tied to its technologies, but not directly to its platform. Generally these will be “children’s edition” versions like .Net Core. I’m not saying Visual Studio for Linux isn’t progress, but is anyone really itching to run .Net on Linux? I mean, after the outrageous commercial success of Mono (/sarcasm), are any of you going, “Woo-hoo, I want to write .Net code and run it on Linux”? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?
Now, about those lawsuits -- Microsoft likes it both ways: Embrace on one hand, and get tidy patent settlements on the other. People who work at Microsoft say it's a big company, and as with all big companies, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Actually, that would be dismal management -- if “we love open source” was really part of Microsoft's strategy.
As evidence that Microsoft loves open source and Linux, last year Microsoft noted some long-running lawsuits that it wasn't really winning and dropped them. Repositioning “we cut our losses” to “because we love you” is good PR. Respect! But let’s talk about real change.
Microsoft can prove it loves open source and Linux for real. It's simple, even: Apply the same regime as the Open Specification Promise to all software published under an OSI-approved license, but don’t tie it to a specification. Simply say, “Microsoft irrevocably promises not to assert any Microsoft Necessary Claims against you for making, using, selling, offering for sale, importing, or distributing any implementation to the extent it is covered and distributed by an OSI-approved software.”
Should the company do so, I might start to believe that Microsoft actually loves open source -- and isn't merely engaging in a silly PR move or polishing an Azure marketing campaign. Until then, we can watch the Azure program manager say nice things about Linux and open source so that you won't go to another cloud.