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Debating The Welcome Mat for Redmond

Aug 17, 2007, 22:30 (53 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

The current debate about whether the open source community should trust Microsoft as the Redmond company continues to make friendlier overtures towards open source practices is, to me, a very interesting discussion.

This is mainly because there hasn't been a cut-and-dried way to pin down true motivations, but rather a convoluted series of events that have led all of the players involved to this point in time. One could argue that this very convolution is, in itself, just a big elaborate deception on Microsoft's part, and solid evidence they are up to no good. But, this could be a prejudicial notion on my part.

So what is it I think the Linux and open source community should do regarding Microsoft.

Before I start this little mind journey, I wanted to make my starting position clearer: lately there seems to be a rash of attempts to label any and all criticisms of Linux as Microsoft-, SCO-, or whoever-today's-bad-guy-is-sponsored FUD. I, frankly, am getting a bit exasperated by this. Yes, these aforementioned corporations have performed some very despicable actions against Linux, and I have no doubt they will again. But there are plenty of people out there who don't like Linux for their own sakes, not because they are part of some vast conspiracy.

I write this, because I want to make it clear that I am not coming at this from FUD-raking point of view. I resist the temptation to make a knee-jerk reaction that says "Microsoft is evil!" In my many years as a journalist, I have met some really evil people. At worst, Microsoft is just led by a bunch of contemptible greed-heads, and honestly, they simply don't impress me. Their recent ineffectual efforts to launch a revised version of Windows has only served to lower my expectations of them further.

There have been calls in the community that say we should not discriminate against Microsoft because of their past actions, that we should let them embrace open source because the second half of their usual M.O., "and extend," simply won't be applicable. This is a solid argument, and one which resonates in me if only from my Hoosier upbringing that seeks egalitarianism as often as possible.

Others in the community lambaste the overtures from Microsoft, pointing out (quite correctly) all of the many words and actions Redmond has taken in the past to bring down Linux, free software, and open source software. If Micrsoft wants respect, these folks argue, then they should earn it. The implication is, mind you, they still have a very long way to go to earn said respect.

I have tussled with this in my head for the last few weeks, and here is the solution I have come up with.

I think Microsoft deserves our respect.

When I was 16, I almost drowned on a Florida beach. I was young, strong, and was even a certified lifeguard. But the waves that day were eight-footers, and living in Indiana had not made me very unfamiliar with riptides and currents. I would like to say I managed to save myself with my wits and skill... but I must admit that it was two on-duty lifeguards (trained in the ocean) who jumped in and pulled me out.

When I was 9, my family visited a resort in Tennessee on Reelfoot Lake. I went on a nature hike with my aunt's family and, but for the quick block of a keen-eyed guide, almost stepped on a venomous water moccasin. At my age and at the distance we were from a hospital, I don't know what would have happened.

When I was 35, I took off in a plane from Chicago's Meigs Field at night, turned to the east and promptly lost the horizon in a haze that masked the line between black lake and sky. A non-instrument pilot's worst nightmare, but I held to my training, maintained my turn, and within a moment found the lights of the cities on Lake Michigan's southern shore.

These are some things that happened to me that at the time frightened me out of my wits. But I still swim in the ocean when I can, and I still walk in the woods, and I still fly airplanes. The difference is, now, I have a very deserved respect for all of those activities. It is the respect accorded by life's lessons, the kind that our parents try to drill into us, and we into our children. Life, however, is always the best and cruelest teacher.

This, I believe, is the respect that should be given to Microsoft, and any other proprietary company with a history of antagonism towards Linux: the respect of something always potentially dangerous. Like dynamite. As dangerous as dynamite is, it can still be used productively and safely.

The best thing to do is cast away fear and intimidation. How? By remembering this: because it is free and open source Linux can never by destroyed. It can be slowed down, or sidetracked by our own actions, but the genie is out of the bottle and can never be put back. With this in mind, why worry about what Redmond says?

Respect them... and never forget who they are.