How will open source react to Microsoft?

Microsoft needs open source badly--will community welcome, or take revenge?

The hits just keep on coming for the Android mobile operating system--albeit this time from European telecom vendors that are insisting the Linux-based operating system would help prop up the flagging Lumia smartphone sales… if only the Lumias ran Android instead of Windows Phone 7.

Reuters has the scoop this morning, in an article that pretty much dispels any hope for the Lumia's success, at least in the European market.

"'If the Lumia with the same hardware came with Android in it and not Windows, it would be much easier to sell,' [an executive in charge of mobile devices at a European operator] said."

Yeah, that's gonna leave a mark.

There's a lot of press talk on the wires today about this disavowal of Windows Phone 7 from these European telecom executives, and what that might mean for sales of these devices in the U.S.

But I am a little more interested in what this might mean for Microsoft and ultimately the Linux community as a whole.

Lately there are signs that Microsoft, the flagship of proprietary software and poster child for computing on the desktop is finding itself increasingly boxed in within technology sectors where it has long dominated, but unable to establish more than a token foothold in other sectors.

Okay, let's all be honest: Microsoft Windows won the desktop. Linux users may hate this, and so will the Mac users, but in terms of sheer numbers and early platform innovation, Microsoft pretty much took this market and owned it. Lately there are signs that this dominance is slowly eroding away, but Windows is still the clear leader.

But that's about it. Enterprise servers? Pretty much a strong minority to Linux's majority. Cloud? Linux rules there, the same way it p0wns the embedded, big data, and mobile spaces.

This is all not news to anyone who's paying attention. And Microsoft is surely one of the ones paying attention. To me, this is a big part of the reason the company launched its new open source subsidiary last week.

Simon Phipps over at Computerworld UK has his own set of excellent theories about the birth of Microsoft Open Technologies, Inc., including the need to firewall open source software and patent liability from the Microsoft mothership. I do not doubt this, but I cannot put aside this simple expedient reason as well: they have come to realize that if they have a hope of advancing in new markets, they must interoperate with other technologies.

And in the world they have found themselves in, that means free and open source software.

We have all, in the past, assumed that Microsoft's forays into open source projects were simply attempts to adopt and control from within. I certainly thought so, and in the early days that may have well have been the case. But now I am not so sure.

I think Microsoft--much to their own dismay, I suspect--has come (or is coming to) the conclusion that interoperability with open source technology is their best chance to succeed in the world. Don't get me wrong, they still want to win, and they are still not above resorting to litigation to try to slow the competition down while they catch up. But in the long term, I believe that they are going to genuinely learn to play by FLOSS rules.

The question is, what will the open source community do about it?

The initial reaction, of course, would be to tell Microsoft to take a long walk on a short pier. Seriously, it's pretty hard for anyone who's been in the Linux and open source community for any length of time to reconcile with a company that has accused the software we use of infringing on 256 conveniently unnamed patents and has infamously referred to open source software as a "cancer." They've lobbied hard against true open standards, as my colleague Glyn Moody awesomely reveals on his blog this week with a collection of revealed e-mails and notes detailing Microsoft's efforts to block restriction-free standards in the UK.

No, this is not a company that plays fair, and it would be a perfectly reasonable option to slap Microsoft's extended hand away.

Red Hat, for one, is cautiously accepting this new overture. Red Hat EVP Paul Cormier blogged:

"Open source and open standards give customers and developers freedom. Interoperability makes more possible. Our hope is that this formal announcement signals the commitment of Microsoft to engage with open source communities in a way that will ultimately provide choice in the marketplace. An open world is a better world."

Cormier is a smart guy, and he knows an opportunity when he sees one. Yes, Microsoft has a bad history when it comes to open source. But if there's a chance that Redmond will be serious about their commitment to open source, it's a better option to try to accept them at face value. I suspect Red Hat (and other Linux vendors) are implementing a trust-but-verify approach for now.

Personally, I think this is the best approach, but I also wonder if Linux vendors could try running a scorched-earth campaign on Microsoft. Now, while the companyn is struggling to find a new foothold?

Try this dark fantasy on for size: what if the Linux community, as a collective whole, stopped putting serious development resources into the "true" PC desktop, shifting those resources into other areas, like mobile interfaces?

Such a move would certainly be welcomed by device manufacturers and mobile telecom vendors, who are desperately looking for a third player in the mobile marketplace to counter the dominance of iOS and Android. A resource shift to a platform environment like MeeGo or Tizen would greatly aid those platforms' development and give the mobile players exactly what they want.

Would this be a complete abandonment of the Linux desktop? No, but it would be a bit of "station keeping," keeping the platform alive but producing no major innovations, unless it's convergence with mobile interfaces.

If this sounds a bit like surrender, I would disagree. If the desktop is really on its way down from the prominence it once help in the IT world, then Linux pivoting away from a declining platform before Microsoft can would do a lot more to box Microsoft in than be an admission of defeat on the part of Linux.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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