A Cool Project for Microsoft: Adopt Linux

"Do you know Linux? WE AE HIRING!" That's what billboards from HostGator have been saying for the past several years. That company is not alone. Demand for Linux talent is high and getting higher. In a February 2014 report, the Linux Foundation and Dice detailed a picture that was already obvious:

The explosive demand for Linux talent is intensifying. Seventy seven percent of hiring managers have "hiring Linux talent" on their list of priorities for 2014, up from 70 percent a year ago. More than nine in ten hiring managers plan to bring Linux professionals on board in the next six months. Furthermore, 46 percent plan to boost their hiring of Linux pros in 2014, a 3-point increase over 2012.

And that's not all:

Linux professionals know they're a hot item, and they're fully aware of how their skills have contributed to their success in the workplace. In fact, a full 86 percent of survey respondents said that knowing Linux has advanced their career opportunities. But when asked why they sought out a Linux career in the first place, only 17 percent ranked money and perks highest. Instead, 51 percent cited their passion for Linux, and 64 percent wanted to work with Linux because of its pervasiveness in modern-day technology infrastructure.

Exactly the same could have been said of DOS in 1985 and Windows a decade later. It cannot be said of either today, even though both still are used all over the place. In 2012, for example, United Airlines moved its reservation system to SHARES, which runs on DOS. And Microsoft's sundowning of Windows XP seems to have given cramps to nearly the entire retail banking industry, which finally will move its ATM machines from XP to Windows 7 or to Linux. It's not going to Windows 8, which Supersite for Windows guru Paul Thurrot calls "a debacle" and says is "tanking harder than Microsoft is comfortable discussing in public". He also says the next version of Windows, code-named Threshold, "recasts Windows 8 as the next Vista", adding "there's no way to sugarcoat this. Windows 8 has set back Microsoft, and Windows, by years, and possibly for good."

According to Ali R. Babaoglan, who, presumably, pays to read Gartner's expensive reports:

90 percent of enterprises will bypass broad-scale deployment of Windows 8. Gartner claims that most enterprises and their trusted management vendors are not yet prepared for the change to Windows 8, and says enterprises will want to wait for more stability before proceeding. While Microsoft as a technology company can make these changes at a more advanced pace, the market will take time to mature, and most enterprises will sit on the sideline for now.

In today's world, the closest thing to Windows' longtime domination of PCs is Android's domination of mobile devices. There the only thing keeping Android from prevailing as utterly as Microsoft once did over PCs is Apple devices running iOS. According to comScore's January 2014 report, Android led smartphone platforms in the US with a 51.7% share, followed by Apple (iOS) with 41.6%, then Microsoft (Windows Phone) with 3.2% and BlackBerry with 3.1%. More telling is the number of OEMs making phones for each operating system. Apple and BlackBerry have just one each: themselves. Microsoft has HTC, Nokia and Samsung. Android has HTC, Samsung and all the rest, which are too many to list. According to Sundar Pichai, the Senior VP who oversees apps at Google, more than a billion devices running Android have been activated.

Microsoft would be far wiser to join that juggernaut than to fight it. And, if it does, here are a few things Microsoft could bring to the Linux/Android table that nobody else will, including Google:

  1. Microsoft is a personal computing company. It started with the gleam that appeared in Bill Gates' eye when he saw the MITS Altair, and it's still there. Google, on the other hand, is a server computing company. Servers gleamed in Larry Page's and Sergey Brin's eyes when they first put Google Search atop a pile of Linux boxes, and it's still there too. One thing companies can't change is where they come from, and Microsoft has a huge legacy advantage on the personal front.

  2. I mean, really personal. The customers Microsoft cares most about are individual human beings, not just B2B corporate ones. Microsoft has vast call centers with well-trained people whose job is to solve individual customers' problems. Got a problem with Gmail or Google Maps? Try calling somebody. It soon will be clear that Google would rather not talk to any users personally, much less operate a call center. (A high-level Google executive once told me that Google wouldn't operate call centers for ordinary folk because that would—no kidding—result in revenues of less than $1 million per employee.)

  3. Linux could use a personal touch. Depending on the kindness of geek friends and strangers isn't enough, and never has been. It should be clear by now that Linux could use a first-rank tech giant willing to get personal with individual customers. The old usual suspects—IBM, SAP, Oracle, HP and so on—are B2B companies at heart and never have been comfortable dealing with the creatures they call "end users".

  4. Microsoft would be in a buyer's market for talent. Perhaps the most brilliant thing Apple ever did was give Macintosh obsessives a place to work and a "genius" title. I would bet there are far more Linux obsessives who deserve the same title, and would be glad to help Microsoft make the most of Linux, and to help both customers and users do the same.

  5. Microsoft and Linux DNA already are beginning to mix. Exhibit A: the Microsoft/SUSE Alliance. Yes, it's a B2B one (in compliance with demand by countless businesses for mixed Linux/Windows solutions), but it could easily expand into B2C as well.

  6. Microsoft + Linux would give IT a new lease on life. For the past several years, IT budgets have been shrinking and/or shifting over to marketing and other departments. One big reason is that Windows is moribund while Linux's strength has been in servers and embedded (especially mobile). By embracing Linux for desktops and laptops, Microsoft would cover the entire non-Apple desktop, laptop and mobile waterfront inside the enterprise.

  7. Microsoft + Linux would create a whole new hardware OEM game. Back in the Windows 95, 98, NT and XP days, when Microsoft said "Jump!" every desktop and laptop OEM would say "How high?" Then Bill Gates left, Windows got lame, Apple got hot, and mobile got hotter. As a result, Windows hardware OEMs have been bailing and failing left and right. IBM unloaded its PC hardware business on Lenovo in 2005. HP announced it was folding its PC business in 2011, when it still had the market lead. (It reversed the decision later, but the damage was done.) Then Dell fell into so much trouble that it made moves to go private (with help from Microsoft) a few months ago. In all three cases, the direction was away from personal devices and toward corporate service offerings. For all those reasons and more, Microsoft became its own OEM with Surface tablets in 2012. Ever used one? They're pretty slick.

Remember how Bill Gates didn't get the Internet at first, and then turned a 180 in 1995? Read the memo. Linux wasn't on Bill's radar at the time, but BSD was. The top item under "actions required for the Windows platform" begins this way:

1. Server. BSD is working on offering the best Internet server as an integrated package. We need to understand how to make NT boxes the highest performance HTTP servers.

Today the reality of Linux is of a piece with the reality of the Internet. Neither is going away. Both are co-evolving in the minds of every geek adding value to them. Both transcend the interests of every company contributing to them, including Google. If Satya Nadella looks at reality with the same clear eyes Bill Gates cast on the Internet in 1995, he might see the wisdom of embracing Linux with the same enthusiasm and commitment.

How would Microsoft do that, exactly? It could start by joining the Linux Foundation and perhaps by purchasing Attachmate, which owns SUSE, plus what's left of Novell. But I think the easiest route would be to open source the intention. Nadella could start by announcing a round of hiring toward harmonizing Linux and Windows, and in the process ask the geek world what Microsoft should do, specifically. I guarantee that the answers will be better than any one of us alone can imagine. And that will be good for Microsoft, Linux and everybody who depends on both.

Doc Searls is editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, where he has been on the masthead since 1996. He is also co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Basic Books, 2000, 2010), author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), a fellow of the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an alumnus fellow of the Berkman Klien Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He continues to run ProjectVRM, which he launched at the BKC in 2006, and is a co-founder and board member of its nonprofit spinoff, Customer Commons. Contact Doc through ljeditor@linuxjournal.com.

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