Under Satya Nadella’s leadership, there has been a change in Microsoft’s attitude towards Linux. Don’t get me wrong. The attitude shift isn’t out of a sense of doing the right thing or an acknowledgement that open source is better. It’s a business move. Microsoft has to go where its customers are.
On Microsoft Azure, 1 out of 3 machines now run Linux, so Microsoft knew it needed to support Linux developers. Microsoft worked closely with Canonical to bring Bash to Windows. The company is bringing SQL Server to Linux. .NET is available for Linux. Visual Studio Code now runs on Linux. And, they just released a new version of Skype for Linux. The list goes on.
But whenever I write about Microsoft’s Linux products I get a pushback from a segment of the Linux user community. That makes me wonder if it’s really ‘okay’ to use Microsoft products on Linux. If not, why?
To shed some light on this question, let’s take a look at some groups of Linux users and their particular motivations.
Free Software Advocates: The Free Software Foundation was created on the idea that users should be in control of their computing. Users should have access to the source code and the license should allow study and modification of the source code. If follows, then, that lack of access to source code puts the developer who sells the software in charge of the user’s computer, and that comes with some real risks:
- There may be backdoors or features that monitor users’ online and offline activities
- There can be features that siphon users’ sensitive data back to company’s server
- There can be software vulnerabilities that only the company knows of and can fix
- The company may revoke access to software through a kill switch
- Since there is only one vendor that develops and sells that software, there is a vendor lock-in. Many non-free applications store data in non-free formats that also creates vendor lock-in.
For these reasons, free software advocates discourage use of non-free products on Linux, including those from Microsoft. They always recommend free software alternatives.
Elephants: I call this group “elephants” because of their long memory. They remember Microsoft’s history of being extremely hostile towards Linux. They remember Steve Ballmer calling it a cancer. They remember how Microsoft goaded Linux companies into signing patent deals. They are understandably skeptical of Microsoft’s recent seemingly Linux-friendly moves. They are the most vocal opponents of using any Microsoft technologies.
Foot voters: These are the people who believe that their actions matter. They believe that if Linux users start using Microsoft products instead of their open source counterparts, it will affect the user-base of such open source products, adversely affecting the products and maybe even eventually destroying the projects. These users vote with their feet by not using Microsoft on their systems.
Enthusiasts: These users don’t particularly care about the philosophical aspects of open source or free software. They use Linux and open source out of curiosity. Or maybe they are DIYers and tinkerers. Many times they use it because it’s free of cost and they don’t want to pay for proprietary products. They will happily run a pirated version of Windows or other software to play games or do other things. Many have no problem whatsoever with using Microsoft products on Linux.
Agnostics: These are open source aficionados who use the best and right tool for the job. Their priority is open source because they believe it is a superior model for software development, but if the proprietary product is the right one for the job at hand, they will use it. They have no problems with Microsoft technologies on Linux. In fact they would want every product and tool to be available across platforms so that they can freely use them without being tied to a platform.
Why not use Windows?
I often get comments like “If you want to use Microsoft products, why even bother with Linux, just use Windows.”
That’s a fair point, but here are a few of my reasons that some of the groups above may understand:
- Foot voters: I am voting with my feet for the operating system that I believe is superior (and that I prefer)
- Free software advocates: I am ensuring that the foundation of my computing needs — the operating system — is under my control. There is no risk of backdoors, data leakage or kill switch.
- Agnostics: Once my base is secure, using my application of choice, Microsoft Skype, for example, can do only limited harm.
In my view, Linux is just a piece of technology that has championed the open source development model. It’s neither an ideology nor a philosophy, unlike free software. Linux is a platform like macOS and Windows. The more software runs on a platform, the richer it will be. I believe that by discouraging or denouncing Microsoft products on Linux, we will weaken Linux as a platform.
I use primarily open source products because I find them to be technically superior to their non-free counterparts. Let me give you an example of what I use on my MacBook. There is a huge set of apps that can be used on macOS, but I use Chrome/Firefox for web browsing; Thunderbird for email; LibreOffice as my office suite; VLC and Tomahawk as media players; Transmission as torrent client; Vienna 3 as the RSS reader. All of these are open source products.
There are only two non-free applications that I use on my macOS: Adobe CC because (for now, at least) it is technically superior to its open source counterparts and Microsoft Word to deal with Docx.
A note on using proprietary software
While I am all for using right tool for the right job, I suggest users be cautious when using proprietary software. Whenever I use a proprietary tool I ensure three things:
1. It’s not used to access any of my sensitive and private data.
2. To avoid lock-in, I don’t use any proprietary formats to store data. I save data in a standard format that can be accessed via other products.
3. Even when I use non-free products, I am always on the lookout for open source alternatives and I continually try them just to keep myself from getting too used to, and as a result dependent on, proprietary software.
So, yes, I will encourage Microsoft and other proprietary companies to bring their products and services to Linux. I will also encourage them to open source their products. For me, the bottom line is that I would rather use a Linux machine running some Microsoft or Adobe products than use a proprietary OS to use a few non-free apps that I need.
For me, this is the wise choice. What about you?