Microsoft Gets the Cancer.

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Microsoft loves Linux. Really?

You might have seen this around the place, most recenty for me at Susecon 2016 - where Microsoft were a sponsor. Microsoft and Linux have been in the news a lot these days...

Even before being declared a cancer by Steve Ballmer in 2001, Linux, everyone's favourite open source OS, has grown to every niche of the computer industry. Everything runs it - from Raspberry Pi systems (now enterprise grade) to supercomputing clusters and IBM mainframes - it is everywhere. By my own estimation, back in 2006 90% of the systems in datacentres were running Linux. It can only be a higher number now. Despite all their marketing even the edge device market is dominated by Linux (Android has Linux as it's core). The Linux desktop market is growing rapidly as well.

But Microsoft have been making interesting moves in the opensource world too:

  • HyperV - the closed source version of the Xen hypervisor (that Microsoft co-sponsored the development of)
  • .NET - is now fully open source
  • SQL Server - shortly to be available on a Linux system near you
  • the Bash shell - now integrated into Windows (with the help of our friends at Canonical)
  • most recently: joining of the Linux Foundation

Various marketing-led statements about the reasons for the above are in circulation, many of them citing ability to compete with Oracle, or being genuine about open source, of for the developers... but personally... I think that the reason for this hippie-like opensource embrace is far more profound. 

Let me take you on a journey.

Developing a new, modern operating system is hard work. Really hard work. That's why hardly anyone does it anymore. Some estimates come in at $100 million a year on salaries alone at Microsoft, with about 1000 people taking part. Whilst dominating the desktop space, they really haven't made a big impact on the server space. Linux has commoditised the OS, in the same way the Intel have commodotised the server hardware. 

By contrast, Microsoft's main competitor (for the desktop space at least), Apple, leapt ahead by dumping their own MacOS in favour based OS X, based on the already tried and tested (and open source) BSD. (BSD, a flavour of Unix, is open source and using a very permissive licence that allows closed source additions.)

If their main play is to make the Windows OS the developers choice of desktop, then they lost that battle years ago - mainly to Apple, closely followed by flavours of Linux. OS X's similarity to Linux (at the command line at least) means a lot to a developer. With the bash announcement Microsoft are simply doing a me-too. Or are they?

As Microsoft continue to fall behind in innovation of the OS they are increasingly increasingly being disrupted by competition that they can't touch or feel - just as they were in the mobile space. 

Let us suppose, just for a moment, that Microsoft wanted to replace the Windows kernel... with Linux.

Why would they want to do that? Simple economics. They could shift the money spent on supporting the bug laden Windows kernel to adding new features to the Linux kernel.

How hard would it be? Hmm. We'd need:

  • An API so that their windows apps work. (.NET - check)
  • An API so their third party ISVs software still works (.NET again - check)
  • A virtualisation layer that can provide binary compatibility for anything else (HyperV check)
  • Cash-cow Office suite to work (works on MacOS so this is easy port, check)- or made to work in the cloud (check)
  • Our core server apps to work on the linux kernel (SQL Server - expect more to follow)

What would be the risks of such a move?

  • I can't think of any. Oh wait. A substantial reduction in revenue. Can you think of others?

The benefits:

  • A more stable operating system that will run on any kind of hardware
  • Greater immunity to viruses
  • A developer base orders of magnitude larger the size of their internal team.
  • From day one of adoption, the new kernel comes at almost no cost.
  • All they need to do is learn to contribute... and they have been getting better at that by the day.

Far fetched? Maybe. Unlikely? We'll have to wait and see. I know one thing though: the hippies tend to (rightly) view the suits with degree of suspicion.

True love? Or Just Unwanted Affection?

It will take more than a change of clothes (from shiny suit to jeans and open neck shirt) to convince many potential partners (or corporates) that their future lies with any single vendor. Linux: we love you too much. Don't get extingushed. However, as the main tenent of the open source movement is actual open-source, not closed-source on top of an open-source operating system, can Microsoft compete?

For that to happen, their products would have to be demonstrably more secure, more open, and fundamentally better than the open-source competition, and be open source themselves. That might just be a transformation too far.

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