Linus Torvalds isn't worried about Microsoft taking over Linux

And you shouldn't be either. Every company wants to rule Linux -- none of them can or ever will.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Every time I write a story about Microsoft and Linux, I can guarantee I'll be buried under such comments as "Microsoft is buying control of Linux!" or "Microsoft is just practicing it old embrace, extend, and extinguish tactics to destroy Linux" or "Microsoft is a wolf in sheep's clothing -- it will wreck Linux."

Here's the truth of the matter: Yes, Microsoft wants to profit from Linux. And, yes, Microsoft wants to extend and control Linux. Guess what? Everyone does, and none of them can.

At the 2019 Linux Plumbers Conference, I talked to Linus Torvalds and several other of the Linux kernel's top programmers. They universally agreed Microsoft wants to control Linux, but they're not worried about it. That's because Linux, by its very nature and its GPL2 open-source licensing, can't be controlled by any single third-party.

Torvalds said:

"The whole anti-Microsoft thing was sometimes funny as a joke, but not really. Today, they're actually much friendlier. I talk to Microsoft engineers at various conferences, and I feel like, yes, they have changed, and the engineers are happy. And they're like really happy working on Linux. So I completely dismissed all the anti-Microsoft stuff."

But that doesn't mean the Microsoft leopard can't change its spots. Sure, he hears, "This is the old Microsoft, and they're just biding their time." But, Torvalds said, "I don't think that's true. I mean, there will be tension. But that's true with any company that comes into Linux; they have their own objectives. And they want to do things their way because they have a reason for it." So, with Linux, "Microsoft tends to be mainly about Azure and doing all the stuff to make Linux work well for them," he explained.

Torvalds emphasized this is normal: "I mean, that's just being part of the community." 

As Eric Raymond pointed out in his seminal open-source work, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: "Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch."

And, these days, a great deal of Linux work starts by scratching a company's itch. 

In the most recent 2017 State of Linux Kernel Development report, those companies are, in order: Intel, Red Hat, Linaro, IBM. Samsung, SUSE, and Google. Each has its own itch and each tries to scratch it as well as they can. While some unpaid volunteers -- 8.2 percent in 2017 -- work on Linux, the kernel is largely the work of developers working for corporations. 

Besides the proof of Microsoft working on the code, Torvald thinks it's interesting "how Microsoft went from basically extorting licensing for FAT (patents) from Android vendors to now making all the patents available. It really isn't just nice. It's real action. I'm pretty happy."

James Bottomley, an IBM Research Distinguished Engineer and top Linux kernel developer,  sees Microsoft as going through the same process as all other corporate Linux supporters:

"This is a thread that runs through Linux. You can't work on the kernel to your own proprietary advantage. A lot of companies, as they came in with the proprietary business mode,l assumed they could. They have to be persuaded that, if you want something in Linux, that will assist your business -- absolutely fine. But it has to go through an open development process. And if someone else finds it useful, you end up cooperating or collaborating with them to produce this feature."

That means, to get things done, even Microsoft is "eventually forced to collaborate with others.".

Bottomley explained:

"So a lot of what you see at the top, and what comes out of the Linux Foundation, is driven by the larger companies. And they're always fighting over, you know, who gets what feature and how it's done. But it's never been any different from the fact that development has to be done in the open. If somebody else finds a benefit, you end up collaborating."

Bottomley concluded: "So it doesn't matter if Microsoft has a competing agenda to Red Hat or IBM or anybody else. Developers are still expected to work together in the Linux kernel with a transparent agenda." In short, Microsoft may be big, but no one is bigger than the entire Linux community. 

Besides, as the Linux stable branch maintainer, Greg Kroah-Hartman, told Swapnil Bhartiya, in an interview

"The Linux kernel development process is not about who you work for, it's about individuals. It's funny, KY [Srinivasan], head of Microsoft's open-source group, came from Novell, and before that, he was an ex-AT&T engineer. And he's a solid engineering manager who's been involved in Linux for 20 years." 

No one doubts that he's working for Linux's benefit. 

Also, Microsoft is a Linux company now. Kroah-Hartman continued: "Over 50% of their Azure workloads are Linux now. It's amazingly huge." He said Microsoft now has a Linux distribution, just like Amazon with AWS, which is a Linux distribution, and Oracle.

Heck, you could even argue, thanks to Windows Subsystem for Linux 2.0, a Linux distro that runs on Windows 10, that Microsoft might be the largest Linux distributor.

None of these Linux leaders, or anyone else I talked to at Plumbers, were the least bit worried about Microsoft taking over Linux. It's the other way around. Linux is now the driving force for almost all technology companies -- and that includes Microsoft. 

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