"Linux is not in the public domain. Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way that the license works." - Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft, June 2001.
I pretty much remember that quote when it was made. I was contracting with LinuxPlanet, about nine months away from working full-time on Linux Today, when my fellow writers and I saw that one come over the wires. My thought at the time was a mental picture of a stick and a hornet's nest.
"But as history has shown, while this type of model may have a place, it isn't successful in building a mass market and making powerful, easy-to-use software broadly accessible to consumers." Craig Mundie, Microsoft Senior Vice President, May 2001.
Mundie's remarks were part of an early trial balloon for Microsoft's concept of shared source, where just a little source code is opened to select customers and not really shared with anyone else. I've never met Mundie, but he was once a vocal detractor of Linux. At one point, it seemed like a week would not go by without another zinger from Mundie hitting the presses.
Recent events have left me feeling nostalgic and looking back over the years at my rather odd career path... particularly the years around the turn of the century, when everyone with a proprietary license on their software seemed to have a mad on for Linux.
The early 2000s were a tumultuous time for Linux, and free and open source software in general. IBM had put $1 billion of skin in the game, and suddenly potential customers were waking up to the fact there was a stable, less-expensive way to run a server that saved a lot of time and money compared to using products from the aforementioned Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Curiously, most of those folks also discovered they were running Linux already, as IT administrators had long before figured out the benefits of Linux.
With the sudden attention came a scramble to deride this plucky young operating system. Through marketing, PR, and even the occasional lawsuit, Linux's sudden fame also came with a target.
History, thus far, has demonstrated the outcome of these reactions, as billions of dollars in revenue are generated by free and open source software companies every year. A decade and a half into the same century, people don't hear a lot of talk about the "evils" of free software.
Instead, we see an IT world full of innovation that's made entirely possible by the flexibility of open software. 451 Research analyst Jay Lyman really drove this point home while he and I were at OSCON in 2011 when he tweeted: "Overwhelming message @ Oscon so far is open source now driven mostly by innovation."
Virtualization has been around for a long time, sure, but the fact that the two major platforms of virtualization — KVM and Xen — are open source has made it much easier for outstanding products to be built on these technologies. Cloud computing and containers are following the same path, again, thanks to free and open source software.
No longer is open source the alternative. It is the mainstream.
If, at the beginning of the 21st Century, we had recalled this quote from French author Gustave Flaubert, we would not have been surprised by this outcome for open software:
"You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it."
About the author
Brian Proffitt is a Manager within Red Hat's Open Source Program Office, focusing on content generation, community metrics, and special projects. Brian's experience with community management includes knowledge of community onboarding, community health, and business alignment. Prior to joining Red Hat in 2014, he was a technology journalist with a focus on Linux and open source, and the author of 22 consumer technology books.