Nearly two decades after calling Linux a “cancer” Steve Ballmer has changed his stance, though he's been careful not to back down or apologise over his pronouncements of the past.
Microsoft’s former CEO claimed he “loved” this week’s news that Redmond would deliver a Linux-compatible version of its ever-popular SQL Server database.
Ballmer is also reported to have described the threat posed to Windows as having already passed. Reportedly speaking at a dinner event this week, Ballmer described the threat to Windows from Linux as now “in the rearview mirror”.
According to Reuters, he said of Windows: “The company made a ton of money by fighting that battle very well… It’s been incredibly important to the company’s revenue stream.”
With $102bn in cash and Microsoft’s annual revenue measured in the tens of billions of dollars, Microsoft certainly did fight that battle well and Ballmer therefore speaks from a position of relative authority.
What happened under Ballmer, however, was not a good, clean fight and as author of Microsoft’s anti-Linux campaign, it’s not surprising he’d stand by past actions.
It was under Ballmer that Microsoft’s relationship with the open-source and Linux community reached its nadir in the early 2000s, when Linux crossed from the nerd fringes to business mainstream. It was 2001 when the exuberant Ballmer called Linux a "cancer".
His beef was the General Public License (GPL) under which the Linux kernel is licensed, which Microsoft reckoned was a threat to all commercial makers of software. Ballmer then authorized a "Get the Facts" campaign of talking points and marketing against Linux that was branded as FUD by open-sourcers.
Get the Facts was an attempt to head off long-standing Windows server customers contemplating a switch to Linux on the server.
But Get the Facts could not alter the sea-change taking place, with vendors like Oracle putting their software on Linux and developers downloading Linux.
By 2005 Ballmer was shifting his position, presiding over a Visual Server 2005 Service Pack that managed Red Hat Linux. “It hurts my eyes,” Ballmer joked.
Microsoft also began working tactically with open source to make apps and code run on Windows Server – software such as PHP and MySQL.
Remarkably, he even made a bid to buy MySQL, offering $450m in January 2008 to take the popular database as its entry level relational product.
Then Sun stepped in and offered $1bn. Unsurprisingly, MySQL’s management took the Sun offer.
For all that, however, Microsoft under Ballmer remained a Windows-first firm – a move that compromised its commercial and technical dealings with Linux.
That is changing, now, under Ballmer’s successor Satya Nadella, with decisions such as SQL Server on Linux. SQL Server is traditionally one of Microsoft’s best-performing product lines. Putting it on Linux would have been unacceptable under Ballmer, custodian of a philosophy that the apps drive the platform sales.
That Ballmer defends the past is to be expected. That he should claim to love SQL Server on Linux is, in context, no surprise.
Alas, it was the former CEO’s past policy that has held back Microsoft – as it did in smartphones and tablets, too.
Whether SQL Server on Linux can work technically, whether it proves to be what the penguins had wanted, and whether it can unleash a new wave of growth – especially in a world of cloud – remains uncertain. ®