Microsoft 'loves' Linux? Then stop attacking open source

Like an abusive partner, Microsoft says it 'loves' Linux -- when what it means is that it desperately needs Linux

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Nemo via Pixabay

According to Satya Nadella, Microsoft loves Linux. He said as much, complete with pictures -- and his team backs him up. In itself, it's a remarkable statement.

Nadella's predecessor, Steve Ballmer, described open source in the darkest terms, characterizing it (with the GNU GPL) as a commercial cancer and never retracting the slur. In many ways, that dark prophecy has come true for Microsoft, which has seen its rent-seeking business model steadily eroded by open source. Though it still has a cash cow to milk, Microsoft's monopolies no longer frighten anyone.

Nadella has also said, "We live in a mobile-first and cloud-first world." Both are dominated by open source. Perhaps that "love" is actually "need"?

Corporate understanding of and engagement with open source follows a common pattern. There's a seven-step path to truly embracing open source, and Microsoft has certainly been making progress along it post-Ballmer. Microsoft is now at  stage 5, "exploratory opening," with genuine investments in cloud computing and open source that deserve recognition.

The staff working on Azure-related projects need encouragement and support. I remember well the challenges of building an open source business at Sun. While each project has its own dynamic, on a macro scale it's important to grow trust and to build influence at this stage of corporate progress. In open source, you live by your karma.

Karma economics

At Sun, I inherited a good deal of angst, both because of the attitudes of earlier executives toward Linux and because of the role the company played as the default enemy in the business models of companies leveraging open source.

Microsoft carries a much greater burden of mistrust, arising from two decades of attacks on open source in general and Linux in particular, which makes its challenge even more formidable. Seasonally appropriate, the Halloween Documents show Microsoft's former internal thinking. It planned both business strategies and tactical dirty tricks to destroy the reputation of open source. While their public statements made no secret of the contempt with which it held open source, the Halloween Documents disclosed a depth of treachery that few suspected prior to their publication.

Today Microsoft has a major business unit asking its new CEO to declare love for Linux. That public stance is extremely welcome. But how can we know the current internal thinking? I asked Microsoft for an interview to discuss its love for Linux, as well as the potential of joining OIN. The response: "Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate your request at this time."

The best way to gain insight is to observe Microsoft's behavior outside the business units dedicated to exploiting open source. After all, the Azure-related units are bound to play nice because their success depends on it. The rest of the company will reflect its real culture and beliefs without lipstick.

Microsoft is justifiably wary. It was forced to make available documentation for its middleware APIs and protocols as a consequence of antitrust convictions in Europe. With that documentation, the Samba Project has gone on to create a drop-in replacement for Active Directory, and in turn Amazon has chosen to offer it in the cloud. No wonder Microsoft would rather face down the European courts than make its active synchronization patents available as it promised at the time. These and patents related FAT filesystems are allegedly at the root of their patent shakedowns around Android, a Linux-based open source project sustained by Microsoft's most-feared competitor, Google.

In the economics of karma, Microsoft has credits against its monumental deficit -- with Azure, opening .Net, and more. Given that opening balance, what's the karma flow like?

Big trolls

To answer that, we need to consider the rest of Microsoft's behavior. Nadella's own vision-statement does not mention open source or Linux -- slightly strange considering their centrality to his future, but a good sign inasmuch as nothing bad is said.

But another area is much more telling: patent licensing. While Microsoft doesn't appear to have crowed much about its victims since Hoeft & Wessel two years ago, its strategy of shaking down Android users with broad threats seems to be continuing unchanged. Indeed, it is reaping billions of dollars annually from victims merely related to Android -- a billion from Samsung alone -- and a major benefit from buying Nokia seems to be its anti-Android patent portfolio.

It's not merely Android. As Microsoft's action against TomTom showed, it is stalking any company successfully using Linux. Most cases don't become public, as the business model used by this troll-within-a-practicing-entity strategy (I call them "big trolls") offers lower prices for silence by its victims. But there can be little doubt Microsoft continues to actively seek new revenue from software distributors of all kinds.

IBM invented the "big troll" patent portfolio monetization strategy Microsoft is using -- Microsoft even hired the IBMer responsible out of retirement to set it up. Yet IBM has realized that a house divided against itself cannot stand and has foresworn patent attacks on Linux. It hasn't done so via a vague feel-good press release but by the concrete action of making a legally binding commitment via its membership of the Open Invention Network.

It's not only them. OIN has seen phenomenal growth in the last year as Linux ecosystem members all over the world have signed up to OIN's patent non-aggression pact and pooled sufficient rights to their patents to allow OIN members to defend themselves against aggressors.

The flow of karma is also in a big ongoing deficit. If Microsoft wants to show it is a member of the Linux community worthy of respect, it will take more than smiles and pink hearts.

To fix that at a stroke, it should join OIN and make its commitment concrete. The move would show not only that Microsoft needs Linux for its cloud strategy, but recognizes it is part of a community that collaborates on open source with mutual respect. With the benefits of community come obligations to behave in a manner consistent with accepted norms of behavior. I checked with Keith Bergelt, the CEO of OIN, and he said, "Microsoft would be a welcome member of OIN. They have much to gain from joining our extensive community of patent non-aggression around the Linux System."

The evidence suggests Microsoft "loves" Linux the same way abusive partners "love" their spouses -- a deep need in one area of the relationship that changes nothing elsewhere. When Microsoft joins OIN, we'll know it actually loves Linux. Until then, all we know is that Microsoft's cloud division needs Linux to survive, and the rest of us need to take care.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.