Microsoft's gotta Microsoft

Thu, Dec 30, 2021 3-minute read

A long time ago, back in the dark days of the Browser Wars, Microsoft hated Free Software, especially Linux and the GNU General Public License. We knew this was factually true when one of their employees leaked the Halloween documents and confirmed all our worst suspicions. The world has changed since then, with Linux systems powering most Internet services and Unix-powered phones dwarfing the number of traditional Windows computers. Microsoft seemed to learn humility in their new role as underdog, going to surprising lengths to win a reputation as a kinder, gentler giant.

I'm not buying it. Oh, I did for a while. Although I'd used Emacs for many years, Microsoft's shiny, MIT-licensed Visual Studio Code lured me away. Shortly after, Microsoft bought GitHub, the world's most popular website for hosting FOSS projects, saying:

When it comes to our commitment to open source, judge us by the actions we have taken in the recent past, our actions today, and in the future.

Now I read that as more of a threat than a promise. Microsoft has made a few telling missteps since then:

  • They replaced the default MIT-licensed Pyright "language server" in VSCode's Python extension with Pylance, their proprietary fork.
  • GitHub released their controversial Copilot project which uses AI to insert other entities' code into a programmer's project.
  • They accidentally replaced the license of a Free Software project with their own.

Taken together, this strikes me as a pattern. Microsoft pioneered the technique of "embrace, extend, extinguish": embracing a standard someone else made, extending it with Microsoft's proprietary add-ons, then extinguishing the competitor by taking its market share. They were legendary in their successful use of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in making potential customers afraid of using competing products.

The Pylance bait-and-switch could be straight out of the old playbook: get everyone to switch to their new, friendly-seeming product, then start replacing it with their proprietary technologies. The GitHub shenanigans would be textbook FUD if it turned out to be purposeful: what better way to get potential customers to accidentally inject GPL-licensed code into their projects, causing them a bunch of legal grief and getting them to switch to Microsoft's own "business-friendly" licensed products?

I don't have evidence for this, of course. I doubt anyone does. And Hanlon's razor says these missteps likely have perfectly benign explanations. However, a big part of my job is analyzing risks and finding problems before they become major issues. My internal alarms are sounding that maybe Microsoft hasn't changed as much as they'd like us to believe. I hope I'm wrong, but in the meantime, I'm migrating my personal projects away from all Microsoft dependencies.