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Microsoft, a technology company long known for its opposition to the open source software paradigm, turned to embrace the approach in the 2010s. From the 1970s through 2000s under CEOs Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Microsoft viewed the community creation and sharing of communal code, later to be known as free and open source software, as a threat to its business, and both executives spoke negatively against it. In the 2010s, as the industry turned towards cloud, embedded, and mobile computing—technologies powered by open source advances—CEO Satya Nadella led Microsoft towards open source adoption as the company pivoted away from its former cash cow, Windows, and towards those technologies. Microsoft open sourced some of its codebase, including the .NET framework and Visual Studio Code, and made investments in Linux development, server technology, and organizations, including the Linux Foundation and Open Source Initiative. Linux-based operating systems power the company's Azure cloud services. Microsoft acquired GitHub, the largest host for open source project infrastructure, in 2018 and is among the site's most active contributors


The paradigm of freely sharing computer source code—a practice known as open source—traces back to the earliest commercial computers, whose user groups shared code to reduce duplicate work and costs.[1] Following an antitrust suit that forced the unbundling of IBM's hardware and software, a proprietary software industry grew throughout the 1970s, in which companies sought to protect their software products. The technology company Microsoft was founded in this period and has long been an embodiment of the proprietary paradigm and its tension with open source practices, well before the terms "free software" or "open source" were coined. Within a year of founding Microsoft, Bill Gates wrote an open letter that positioned the hobbyist act of copying software as a form of theft.[2]

Microsoft successfully expanded in personal computer and enterprise server markets through the 1990s, partially on the strength of the company's marketing strategies.[3] By the late 1990s, Microsoft came to view the growing open source movement as a threat to their revenue and platform. Internal strategy memos from this period, known as the Halloween documents, describe the company's potential approaches to stopping open source momentum. One strategy was "embrace-extend-extinguish", in which Microsoft would adopt standard technology, add proprietary extensions, and upon establishing a customer base, would lock consumers into the proprietary extension to assert a monopoly of the space. The memos also acknowledged open source as a methodology capable of meeting or exceeding proprietary development methodology. Microsoft downplayed these memos as the opinions of an individual employee and not Microsoft's official position.[4]

While many major companies worked with open source software in the 2000s,[5] the decade was also marked by a "perennial war" between Microsoft and open source in which Microsoft continued to view open source as a scourge on its business[6] and developed a reputation as the archenemy of the free and open source movement.[7] Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer likened Linux to a kind of cancer on intellectual property. Microsoft sued Lindows, a Linux operating system that could run Microsoft Windows applications, as a trademark violation. The court rejected the claim and after Microsoft purchased its trademark, the software changed its name to Linspire.[6]


In the 2010s and under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft began to adopt open source into its core business. In contrast to Ballmer's stance, Nadella presented a slide that read, "Microsoft loves Linux".[7] As the industry trended towards cloud, embedded, and mobile computing, Microsoft turned to open source to stay apace in these open source dominant fields. Windows, Microsoft's cash cow, became a loss leader to sell Microsoft's cloud products. Microsoft's adoption of open source included several surprising turns. In 2014, the company opened the source of its .NET framework to promote its software ecosystem and stimulate cross-platform development. In 2016, Microsoft introduced Windows Subsystem for Linux, which lets Linux applications run on the Windows operating system. The company invested in Linux server technology and Linux development to promote cross-platform compatibility and collaboration with open source companies and communities, culminating with Microsoft's platinum sponsorship of the Linux Foundation and seat on its Board of Directors.[8] The Open Source Initiative, formerly a target of Microsoft, used the occasion of Microsoft's sponsorship in 2017 as a milestone for open source software's widespread acceptance. Microsoft delivered the keynote of the 2018 Southern California Linux Expo, a major convention.[9]

Microsoft developed Linux-based operating systems for use with its Azure cloud services. Azure Cloud Switch supports the Azure infrastructure and is based on open source and proprietary technology, and Azure Sphere powers Internet of things devices. As part of its announcement, Microsoft acknowledged Linux's role in small devices where full the Windows operating system would be unnecessary.[9]

In 2018, Microsoft acquired GitHub, the largest host for open source project infrastructure. Microsoft is among the site's most active contributors and the site hosts the source code for Microsoft's Visual Studio Code and .NET runtime system. The company, though, has received some criticism for only providing limited returns to the Linux community, since the GPL license lets Microsoft modify Linux source code for internal use without sharing those changes.[10]


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  1. ^ Radits 2019, pp. 13–14.
  2. ^ Radits 2019, pp. 17–18.
  3. ^ Radits 2019, pp. 27–28.
  4. ^ Radits 2019, p. 27.
  5. ^ Radits 2019, p. 30.
  6. ^ a b Radits 2019, p. 31.
  7. ^ a b Radits 2019, p. 32.
  8. ^ a b Radits 2019, p. 33.
  9. ^ a b Radits 2019, p. 34.
  10. ^ a b Radits 2019, p. 35.
  11. ^ Krill, Paul (April 18, 2019). "Microsoft aims for simplicity with Bosque programming language". InfoWorld. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  12. ^ Warren, Tom (March 6, 2019). "Microsoft open-sources its Windows calculator on GitHub". The Verge. Retrieved April 21, 2019.
  13. ^ Archambault, Michael (March 6, 2019). "Microsoft Continues Open-Source Effort, Releases Calculator Code". Digital Trends. Retrieved April 21, 2019.


  • Radits, Markus (January 25, 2019). A Business Ecology Perspective on Community-Driven Open Source: The Case of the Free and Open Source Content Management System Joomla. Linköping University Electronic Press. ISBN 978-91-7685-305-4. ((cite book)): Invalid |ref=harv (help)

Further reading