If you had to pick two groups of people unlikely to be sending each other Christmas cards in the tech industry, you could do worse than picking Microsoft and the open-source community (we’ll assume you’re on some oddly themed episode of Family Feud, possibly featuring Steve Harvey dressed like a copy of Windows 95). Historically, the two groups have been on very opposite sides of computing, dating back to Steve Ballmer’s infamous comments on open source code back in 2001.
Ballmer memorably called Linux “a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.” In an interview with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, Microsoft president Brad Smith said that Microsoft had been “on the wrong side of history when open-source exploded at the beginning of the century.”
Smith continued: “Today, Microsoft is the single largest contributor to open-source projects in the world when it comes to businesses. When we look at GitHub, we see it as the home for open-source development, and we see our responsibility as its steward to make it a secure, productive home.”
This radical shift in attitude isn’t just words, though many in the open-source community remain skeptical of Microsoft’s long-term intentions. The company will ship a full Linux kernel in the next Windows update and already has partnered with Canonical to bring Ubuntu to Windows 10 as well. The pivot to embrace open source has been one of the signature features of Nadella’s time as Microsoft’s CEO.
The general thinking is that this shift in priorities reflects Microsoft’s perception of where its core business interests lie. When Microsoft was focused on building Windows and Office, it viewed Linux as more of a competitor. Nadella, however, has made it clear that he views Microsoft as a cloud-centric company in every respect. When your primary business is hosting other people’s workloads, projects, and infrastructure, it makes no sense at all to view Linux as a competitor rather than an operating system many of your clients will want to deploy or rely on for critical components of their own projects.
While there are genuine concerns about how Windows development is prioritized within Microsoft as a result of these changes, the company’s changing position relative to Linux reflects the changing nature of computing. Remaining focused solely on traditional enclaves like desktops and laptops would effectively result in Microsoft being left behind — relevant for the workflows that it runs on (PCs), but without much input into future developments. And Microsoft was on the wrong side of history, with respect to open source and overall Linux development. Linux may never have succeeded on the desktop, if success is defined as breaking Microsoft’s near-monopoly. But it succeeded spectacularly everywhere else across computing, including in servers and the cloud.
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