Search the Internet for “Microsoft and Linux.” Go ahead; open a new tab and run that term through Bing. *rimshot* I’ll wait.
Notice a common thread? I sure do. Virtually every top result harkens back to 2001, the year that Steve Ballmer is credited with calling Linux “a cancer.”
For nearly two decades, Microsoft waged a holy war against Linux – I’ve actually had Microsoft employees tell me that the first thing they learned from Redmond were the evils of open source – until 2015, when Microsoft declared its love of Linux and later went on to join the Linux Foundation.
When you consider the circumstances, however, it’s not at all surprising.
In (tepid) defense of Steve Ballmer
As with all memorable quotes, if you examine the context of Ballmer’s oft-cited “Linux is cancer” comment, that wasn’t exactly what he said.
Ballmer was actually praising Linux as “good competition.” “It will force us to be innovative,” he said. “It will force us to justify the prices and value that we deliver. And that’s only healthy.”
So, he wasn’t hating on Linux. He was hating on what he saw as a competitive disadvantage, effectively funded by the government. Let me explain.
At the time Ballmer gave that interview, Microsoft faced a massive federal anti-trust lawsuit, against the company’s bundling practices. Before that lawsuit, Microsoft did two things that were ultimately deemed anti-competitive.
First, it deeply ingrained Internet Explorer in a manner that made it pretty much the only way to view web pages on the Windows operating system. Yes, you could install Netscape Navigator or Opera (that gives you an idea of how long ago we’re talking about), but you couldn’t stop Windows from using IE as its default hyperlink handler.
Second, Microsoft dictated to the scores of original equipment manufacturers what they could bundle on a new PC. And specifically, Microsoft prevented OEMs from putting any other web browser on new PCs.
So only those people who wanted to use something other than IE, went through the trouble to download an installer over a 56K phone modem, and who were skilled enough to work around IE being the default browser, would ever use Netscape or Opera.
You’re in the tech industry. You know how end users are. So you know that 99 percent of people just used IE, despite it being a vastly inferior product. And that pretty much spelled the end of Netscape.
Netscape is dead. Long live Netscape.
The government won the antitrust case (albeit too late for Netscape), and Microsoft had to both decouple IE from the Windows operating system and let people choose their own default handlers for email and web visits. But at the time Ballmer was speaking to the Chicago Sun-Times, that decision was not yet made, and he was, in a ham-fisted way, trying to argue his defense of that lawsuit, specifically.
His complaint wasn’t about Linux. It was about the GNU GPL 2 license, which regulates the use of the Linux kernel.
The only thing we have a problem with is when the government funds open-source work. Government funding should be for work that is available to everybody. Open source is not available to commercial companies.
Translation: Microsoft is in the business of selling software licenses. The GNU GPL 2 requires derivatives and distributions to be open source. Thus, if Ballmer builds something with Linux, he can’t close the source of the thing he made. Which means he can’t effectively license his derivatives and distributions because people can just get the source code and build the software themselves.
The “government funds open source” claim I’m not so sure about. The federal government has long considered the adoption of open source software a goal, and some federal projects have either funded or contributed to open source – such as DARPA and other research projects – but I can’t find a reliable source that codifies Ballmer’s specific objections or notes when and how government funding has ever aided a Linux distribution.
Whatever he was whining about, Ballmer’s logic was at best specious, because he was arguing both sides.
We can ignore, for the purpose of debate, that plenty of companies make money off open-source software, then and now. Nor need we concern ourselves with the fact that Microsoft’s operating income rose following the anti-trust judgment. Let’s not even bother mentioning the gall it takes to claim that you’re at a competitive disadvantage unless you can ban other people from competing with you.
When I say Ballmer was “arguing both sides,” what I mean is, he was claiming that he couldn’t make any money licensing code that’s open source, while simultaneously arguing that the presence of an open-source alternative was going to make his licensed products better, which should have increased sales.
And, it turns out, probably did. Because Microsoft’s profits tripled since then, leveling off in Fiscal Year 2015.
Seeing the Light
Of course, Ballmer achieved that profit success by riding Windows and Office into the ground.
Multiple opportunities to get a jump on the competition in smartphones, tablets, cloud systems and more, all disappeared under Ballmer’s leadership if they looked like they might interfere with the seat licensing schemes that were Microsoft’s bread and butter.
So while demand for Microsoft’s operating systems, game console, and Office all took off in the 2000s, Microsoft lost the opportunity to lead in the technical areas that would dominate our decade: Smart devices and cloud services.
It’s tempting to blame Ballmer for putting Microsoft in that pickle and sure, he’s to blame. He was in charge and he was wrong about the future.
But this happens to all industry giants, all the time: Kodak. Digital Equipment Corp. and, by proxy, Compaq. Kmart, which was Walmart well before Walmart, and by proxy, Sears, which caught at least two retailing waves before smashing into the rocks. The list goes on. Ballmer is no special case. He’s just another legacy business boss who couldn’t let go of a dying business model until it was bled dry.
What makes Microsoft different than those other companies is that Microsoft has the cash, the time and the gumption, under new CEO Satya Nadella, to not only right the ship, but make some headway.
Under Nadella, Microsoft is doing about the best it can in playing catch-up with lost opportunities.
Surface tablet is showing promise, and so is Xamarin, a cross-platform app development tool. And then there’s LinkedIn. It’s no Facebook, but it’s also no Yahoo, either.
On ‘Microsoft ♥ Linux’
But Nadella has clearly staked Microsoft’s future on Azure. And he knows that for Azure to succeed, it must siphon users from Amazon Web Services. And that siphoning is only going to work if Azure can provide every service AWS provides, and across all the platforms AWS supports – Linux, among them.
Or, more specifically, that Microsoft takes a complete turnaround on open source since Ballmer’s infamous quote. The .NET Core is open source. So’s much of Microsoft’s documentation. Microsoft even has landing pages devoted to its open source efforts and a unit that works on open source interoperability.
The reasons for this are obvious, at least to me.
If Azure is going to eat AWS’s chickens, it’s going to have to get into AWS’s hen house. And that’s not going to happen without open-source (.NET Core) and cross-platform (Xamarin) development tools and technology; and support for all workloads (e.g. containers, NoSQL), regardless of operating system.
In other words, Nadella’s goal is this: If Amazon unveils AWS Elastic Widgets tomorrow, Microsoft had better introduce Azure Widget Service – today.
Microsoft admits as much, openly, any time they talk about why they’re so aggressively courting Linux users.
But I can understand reluctance among the Linux community to believe that Microsoft has truly embraced Linux. Certainly, it takes no stretch of the imagination to understand that Microsoft is embracing Linux for selfish purposes.
And as much as I can appreciate the open source purist retching with revulsion over such a thing, I don’t blame Microsoft one bit. I think it’s genius.
Microsoft has come light years under Satya Nadella. I see it in the products Microsoft creates; I hear it every time I talk to Microsoft employees; I feel it every time the Azure blog tells me about a new feature.
The embrace of Linux and, more accurately, everything open source is sincere, because it’s the only way forward for Redmond.
You may find that selfish and depressing. I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Because it’s finally delivering the innovation, pricing and quality Ballmer was promising 15 years ago.