Earlier this week, Microsoft became a sponsor of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), a pioneering and very influential group with a mandate to promote the principles of open source software.
“Open source” is a very important philosophy in Silicon Valley and beyond — it refers to the practice of making software source code publicly available for anybody to freely download, inspect, and remix. It’s a foundational principle for many developers, and the OSI was largely responsible for popularising it in the late nineties.
For a very long time, Microsoft was fiercely opposed to the concept of open source. The Linux operating system, probably the best-known example of open source software, presented a threat to the dominance of Windows. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer infamously referred to open source as a “cancer.”
Under CEO Satya Nadella, who took the reins in January 2014, Microsoft has rethought its approach to open source. Developers love open source software, and Linux is the operating system of choice in the data center. And so, Microsoft has embraced open source, with Satya Nadella famously proclaiming that “Microsoft loves Linux.”
An uphill battle
Generally speaking, it’s gone pretty well for Microsoft, with these moves winning praise from new and old customers alike. You can download versions of Linux from Microsoft’s app store and use it right from within Windows 10. Even Steve Ballmer now says that he’s gotten over his fear of Linux.
However, not everyone is convinced: Staunch open source advocates maintain that Microsoft cannot be trusted, and that it’s merely buying its way in to organisations like the OSI to destroy them from the inside.
“The corporate/mainstream media keeps telling us that Microsoft has changed and can now be trusted within its competition, but this media merely plays along with an expensive PR campaign which is intended to shift attention and systematically launder Microsoft’s reputation,” writes Dr. Roy Schestowitz, an open source advocate.
Even before Microsoft joined the OSI, open source advocates were sceptical. Richard Stallman, for instance, is the leader of the free software movement, which holds that any software that isn’t entirely open source is inherently unethical. Famously, Stallman won’t watch Netflix on someone else’s computer because it violates these principles.
“The aim of the free software movement is to free users from freedom-denying proprietary programs and systems, such as Windows,” Stallman told TechRepublic earlier in September.
While it’s undeniable that Microsoft has made some progress in winning over open source developers, this scepticism shows just how far the company still has to go. That’s likely why the company has ramped up its hiring of Linux experts and developers active in the open source community — the burden of proof is entirely on Microsoft.
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