Microsoft: We were wrong about open source, but luckily you can change

Microsoft president Brad Smith talks open source, privacy, and coronavirus contact-tracing apps.

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Microsoft president and chief legal counsel Brad Smith has taken his turn at admitting Microsoft's former stance on open source put it on the "wrong side of history". 

In 2001 former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously said, "Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches." Shortly after that and for the same reason, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates described the open-source GPL (GNU General Public License) as "Pac-Man-like"

Ballmer has since made peace with open source, and now Smith, who was one of Microsoft's top lawyers during its war on open source, has admitted he too was wrong about its approach to technology.

SEE: Top five open source Linux server distributions (TechRepublic Premium)

"Microsoft was on the wrong side of history when open source exploded at the beginning of the century, and I can say that about me personally," he said in a talk about hot computing topics at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). 

"The good news is that, if life is long enough, you can learn … that you need to change."

Of course today – with an eye on cloud developers and as the owner of code-sharing site GitHub – Microsoft approaches open source completely differently, even building a custom Linux kernel for Windows 10 for developers who use the Windows Subsystem for Linux.   

"Today, Microsoft is the single largest contributor to open-source projects in the world when it comes to businesses," said Smith. 

"When we look at GitHub, we see it as the home for open-source development, and we see our responsibility as its steward to make it a secure, productive home for [developers]."

Smith also said that in 2013 president Obama warned top execs from Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook that they too would soon face scrutiny over privacy. 

Obama made the prediction at a roundtable with tech executives who were pushing for surveillance reforms following Edward Snowden's NSA leak, reminding them they held more data about people than the government did. 

Smith said the "political watershed moment" arrived with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which affected tens of millions of Facebook users and resulted in huge fines for Facebook.    

"As each of us was pushing Obama to reform government surveillance, there came this interesting moment where [Obama] looked around the table and said, 'I just want you all to recognize that you all have more data about people than the government does. And I have a suspicion that the guns will turn: and there will be a moment when the demands that you're placing on the government will be placed on you as well'," Smith said.

"I thought that was a very insightful comment at the time and I wrote it down. I looked around and was struck that no one else was writing it down."  

But that moment came five years later with the Cambridge Analytica revelations. 

"For a variety of reasons, [Cambridge Analytica] was a moment when the public focused more on the amount of data that tech companies have on them. It was a watershed political moment because it started to unleash more scrutiny on tech companies."

SEE: Linux not Windows: Why Munich is shifting back from Microsoft to open source – again

Smith also discussed the limits of app-based COVID-19 contact tracing, which Apple and Google have jointly supported with tools that allow mobile apps to use Bluetooth to detect the proximity of other devices. Smith noted that health officials can't plan on the assumption that everyone will have an app let alone a smartphone to run it on.    

"Not everyone is going to walk around with an app on their phone. Governments are not going to make it mandatory. Even if you could get everybody with a phone to use the app, not everybody has a phone," he said. 

"Some of the most vulnerable people in this pandemic are homeless people, and people who are elderly in nursing homes. We can't base our planning on the assumption that everyone will have this app."

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Microsoft's Brad Smith: "Microsoft was on the wrong side of history when open source exploded at the beginning of the century."

Image: CBS/YouTube