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Microsoft Linux: Why one free software advocate wants it

Ex-Microsoftie says that Windows 7 is doomed and Linux, free software, will ultimately dominate.

A lot of open source advocates like to rage against the machine at Microsoft, but when a former Microsoft Research employee says that Windows 7 won't stop Linux from market domination, that's an opinion to note. Keith Curtis, author of the book After the Software Wars, says just that. But he goes further. He thinks Microsoft and its customers would be better off if the company ditched Windows and instead built its own version of the Linux operating system.

Keith Curtis
These topics came up yesterday during my interview with Curtis for Network World's Panorama Podcast series. It was an interesting conversation with someone who has crossed over worlds, from Microsoft employee to free software advocate. But it raised as many questions in my mind as it answered. For instance (at 13:10 in the interview), I asked Curtis how he thinks Microsoft can meet its obligations to employees, shareholders and customers while also morphing itself from a proprietary software maker to an open source company. His answer was surprising: Microsoft Linux. He noted that Ubuntu was started with about $10 million -- an amount that Microsoft could lose unnoticed in the cushions of a couch.

Listen:

"I think we could all be running Microsoft Linux. I sent an e-mail to Steve Ballmer about this and he said he wasn't interested," he quips, but is only partially joking. "Microsoft could very easily dominate the Linux market if they wanted to. I don't think they should release all their source code ... nobody would use it."

Given the likelihood of Microsoft Linux (zippo), I asked him if he thought the IT industry, with its giant Microsoft ecosystem, would somehow be better off if Microsoft vanished rather than having the folks in Redmond figure out how to become more open.

"There is an ecosystem around Microsoft but if you look at the ISV ecosystem, that's mostly disappeared. When I joined Microsoft in '93, there would be boxes of software that people would install. But that's almost gone. Microsoft's partners are service providers and hardware vendors. ... whether Microsoft should whither away is a difficult question. I just look at their code bases and the world doesn't need any of their code bases. From the day I started using Linux, I no longer used one line of Microsoft code -- it's been four years now."

I am not a programmer, but as a user and a journalist who has spent over 20 years covering the IT industry, I can see how the open source model, where source code is visible to all, makes a lot of sense. Along with that, the various open source licenses that allow anyone to change code, as long as they keep the code visible, also make sense.

But I also worry about this idea that "open" software must also somehow be "free" software. If someone wants to give it away, that's up to the individual. Shareware and freeware have been around as long as the personal computer itself. However, I can't reconcile requiring programmers to donate their work, leaving them to figure out how to earn a living with some kind of subscription or services model.

Curtis doesn't see it that way. He says the programming can become similar to lawyer-ing (listen to him at 3:25 mark). Lawyers get paid a pretty penny by clients that need their expertise, but they don't own the documents they produce -- those go into the public record as part of court cases. "As long as software has bugs, as long as computers stink, there will be a market for computer programmers," he says.

We also discuss what it will take to get Linux to become a popular choice for mainstream consumers who today buy Windows or Macs and why driverless cars are made possible by free software.

It was a lot to chew on. What do you think? Could Redmond own the open source world if it released Microsoft Linux?

Also see: Ron Barrett's view: Why Windows 7 will crush Linux

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