Microsoft really has changed, Linux Foundation chief says

Jim Zemlin welcomes Microsoft to the open-source consortium

scott guthrie jim zemlin microsoft connect

Scott Guthrie, the executive vice president in charge of Microsoft's Cloud & Enterprise division, greets Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin on stage at the Microsoft Connect conference in New York City on November 16, 2016.

Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

Microsoft made a splash in the tech industry on Wednesday when it announced that it had joined the Linux Foundation as a platinum member. While the move felt like a welcome extension of the tech giant's open source strategy to some, others saw it as a threat to Linux.

Microsoft's addition to the foundation was a positive step for the open-source community overall, Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, said in an interview. In his view, adding Microsoft as a foundation member is an important move to further the Linux Foundation's mission, "which is to create the greatest shared technology asset in history."

"I think there is a burden on the broader open-source community — again, I think that there's a healthy anti-establishment sensibility — but there's the act of being the anti-movement, the rebel movement, and there's the act of being the mainstream movement. And to be in the mainstream does require broadening your tent and bringing as many people into that tent as possible."

The two organizations have been working together for a while. The first public partnership between the foundation and Microsoft appeared last year, when they announced a certification for running Linux on Azure. 

But Microsoft has been helping out the foundation in other ways, Zemlin said. Microsoft engineers have contributed to the popular Node.js project, and the company is lending its security expertise to the Core Infrastructure Initiative, a project aimed at helping to secure key open-source tools.

When asked whether Microsoft was joining the Linux Foundation to destroy the open source operating system, as some commenters have mused online, Zemlin said he's "just not a big conspiracy theorist." It would be rather difficult for Microsoft to kill Linux at this stage, he said, and Microsoft was already following through on a commitment to open-source software.

"First of all, when you join the Linux Foundation, you're obligated to support the mission of our organization, which is to support the growth of Linux and open source," he said. "And Microsoft has not only committed to doing that as a part of our organization, but I've got to tell you, they're pretty much already doing it."

This isn't Microsoft's first rodeo as a member of an open-source group. The company is also a member of the Apache Software Foundation and the Eclipse Foundation. Microsoft has also been opening up its own products: It released .NET, PowerShell, and other tools under open-source licenses. GitHub revealed it is the company with the largest external contributor base for projects it has released.

To be fair, the company is paying US$500,000 for its membership, but Zemlin doesn't seem like the sort of person who would put aside potential issues with Microsoft for a big chunk of cash. He was one of the foundation's leading voices speaking out against the tech titan's past actions.

Microsoft is facing competitive pressures to engage with open source, thanks to the interest of its customers, as well as the changing times in computing. And as Zemlin pointed out, there's no way Microsoft alone can carry the day when it comes to building the software people need.

"In a world where things are in the cloud, everybody has a computer, there is too much software to be written for even Microsoft, with all their engineers, to write it on their own," he said. "It ain't gonna happen."

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