Microsoft's "Love" of Linux

Recently Microsoft has been making a lot of announcements and releases of technology that fall under a supposedly “Microsoft Loves Linux” type of strategy. This is particularly noteworthy given the history of Microsoft since the end of the 90s. Their internal policy was a full attack on Linux1. and they were convicted by a US court of anti-trust violations for acting out that strategy2. If they have indeed now fully turned around and now “love” Linux that would indeed be big news.

Two particular strategies became famous in how Microsoft treated Linux (and also other technologies and competitors):

  • Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD): a marketing strategy designed to discredit the technology and it’s proponents by spreading that open-source software infringes on Microsoft patents and is costlier to operate among other claims3.
  • Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish (EEE): a technical and market strategy of starting by becoming compatible with an upcoming technology only to extend its monopoly by creating incompatible extensions and using them to push out the original competitors4.

The news yesterday was about the release of exFAT patents so the filesystem is usable in the Linux kernel5. This is a case where Microsoft has been able to extract billions out of companies shipping Android by asserting exFAT patents, so it’s right in line with the FUD strategy. But for the sake of this discussion lets assume Microsoft’s strategy isn’t to talk out of both sides of its mouth and that the “Microsoft Loves Linux” slogan is genuine from a marketing standpoint. That of course means that the FUD attack is now off the Microsoft playbook. How about EEE?

All the announcements we’ve seen so far out of the “new” Microsoft post-Ballmer are still fully consistent with the EEE strategy as far as I can tell. I can practically see the slide out of the strategy deck that describes it. I won’t spin up PowerPoint and produce it for fear of it showing up somewhere presented as a real Microsoft slide. But I’ll give you all the data you need to visualize it (or produce it yourself).

Slide Title: Cement Microsoft’s technological and market positions with a “Love Linux” strategy that exploits the best out of the technology without giving away strategic advantages

Left side of the slide body: Capture technological advantages and engage with the tech community…

  • Augment Windows userland stack with best-of-breed technologies (e.g., Cygwin done right/built-in)
  • Release foundational technologies as open-source in cases where the Microsoft stack is being left behind (e.g., position .NET as a neutral technology)
  • Port server applications in cases where Windows Server is not a competitive solution (e.g., release SQL Server for Linux)

Right side of the slide body: …while maintaining key assets in place

  • Maintain Office as a Windows-first experience (i.e., keep the Office365 use cases narrow, complementary and reactive to competitors like Google Sheets)
  • Defend and aggressively expand APIs and technologies where Microsoft leads (e.g., keep DirectX the only first-class API for games)
  • Continue to push Windows Server and supporting cloud offerings as the only viable technology for corporate productivity (i.e., reinforce the proprietary Outlook/ActiveSync/ActiveDirectory/etc stack)

The keen eyed will see that the recent “Love Linux” themed announcements fit this strategy (WSL, .NET Core, SQL Server on Linux) as well as the non-announcements (no Office on Linux, DirectX instead of Vulkan, etc). But the strategy doesn’t fit because I’m biased and am out to do a hit job. I think this is a great strategy for Microsoft and exactly what it should do given the position it has in the market and technology landscape we are in. Their traditional technological moats are mostly gone and they are playing their strategic cards just right to maintain the market moats while also gaining a veneer of “we’re hip and cool and with the times on open-source”. But it’s just a veneer, don’t patronize everyone by claiming you “Love Linux” when the available evidence all points to this just being another chapter in Microsoft’s anti-Linux strategy. A strategy that they obviously should have because Linux has been an existential threat to their business for over 20 years and that threat has nothing but increased over time.

To finish, this is a theory, and as any good theory needs to be falsifiable. So here are the kinds of news that would require re-evaluating it because they would definitely signal some kind of “love” for Linux:

  • Microsoft launches Office for desktop Linux or otherwise makes the Linux Office experience go from fourth-rate6 to first-rate (e.g., by making Office a web-only product accessible from any standards-compliant browser).
  • DirectX, Win32 and other Windows-only APIs are dropped. New apps opt-in to a brave new world of .NET/Vulkan/etc that can be equally run on Linux and old apps run in backwards compatibility mode like DOS apps.
  • Active Directory and associated technologies are released as 1) a set of closed source containers or VMs to be launched in the Linux cloud of your choice and 2) a fully featured open-source client stack that plugs into standard Linux technologies allowing corporate admins to manage Windows and Linux clients with the same tools

I think all of these would be strategic blunders from the point of view of Microsoft shareholders. But they’re the kind of things you do for love. Otherwise this is just “love” if your standard is abusive one-sided relationships. My suggestion is to keep the strategy and drop the slogan. Or don’t if your marketing research says people are buying it. After all:

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Groucho Marx

  1. Halloween Documents 

  2. United States v. Microsoft Corp 

  3. Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt 

  4. Embrace, Extend, Extinguish 

  5. exFAT in the Linux kernel 

  6. Web Office worse than Android Office worse than OSX Office worse than Windows Office