Has Microsoft thrown in the towel for Windows server?

In the early days of Linux, Linus joked that his goal for Linux was “World Domination”.

At the time I assumed it was a joke — it was 1999, the Wintel stranglehold over the industry was at its peak (or should that be its nadir?) and the idea of Linux being anything more than an interesting niche seemed fanciful. I now wonder whether Linus was really joking, but I suspect he was and he’s been just as pleasantly surprised by how far Linux has come as I have (well, just as “surprised”, probably more “pleasantly” as it’s his baby).

The growth of Linux

Linux’s incredible rise throughout the industry represents a huge, seismic shift. In the guise of Android it powers nearly 90% of the world’s smartphones; it’s the #1 OS in the server space; it underpins the internet; runs on 98% of the world’s supercomputers; and it’s the OS of choice inside consumer devices. You already know all this of course, but my sense is that most people, even inside the industry, hugely underestimate the magnitude of the change that is afoot. I suspect this is partly because no single company owns Linux, so it’s hard to measure, and so widely under-reported. And also because Linux remains just an interesting niche on what we still picture in our minds when we think of a computer: desktops and laptops.

Microsoft’s open-source strategy

In this context, I found Microsoft’s recent announcement that it is to open-source the server side of its .Net stack surprising, and, what is truly amazing, that it is porting it to Linux. Why would it do this? It makes billions of dollars every year from Windows Server licenses, so why would the engineering teams there work to make all that server code run well on Linux and thus make it much easier for all those Windows Server customers to swap it out for Linux? Now, one should always take with a pinch of salt announcements from big corporates when it comes to their real intentions or future plans. Maybe this is good old-fashioned Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: maybe there is no intention of releasing a Linux .Net stack, and Microsoft is just hoping it’ll stem the loss of Windows Server as corporates wait for the Linux .Net server stack before substituting Linux for Windows Server.

But one must at least consider the possibility that the folks from Redmond mean what they say. If the announcement is serious, I think this is huge: the only motivation I can think of is that Microsoft has decided that the server war is lost, and it is now retreating from that battlefront and shoring up the desktop. That is, better for Microsoft to ensure all those servers which are going to become Linux anyway work well with the Windows desktop, rather than risk the wave spreading out and engulfing the desktop too. Are we finally about to see the both long-awaited and much-derided Year of the Linux Desktop? Who knows, but I think Microsoft are very worried about it, and are prepared to sacrifice billions of dollars of Microsoft Server revenue to do all they can to try to stave it off.

Which of course begs an answer to the question: is Microsoft really serious? Well, it does have form. When the company ported Office to Mac many years ago it was widely assumed this was purely to refute the accusations that it was abusing its monopoly position. But when Mac stopped becoming an interesting niche and everyone stopped worrying about any Microsoft monopoly, why wasn’t it pulled? Sure, the Mac version of Office generates a bit of cash for Redmond, but every Mac Office license sold allows its user to switch away from Windows, very possibly for ever. That can’t be good for Microsoft. And not only has it continued to support Office on Mac, Microsoft recently released it for the iPad, which must really undermine the Surface business. It all seems very odd, unless you consider that Microsoft might just be a lot more scared of Linux and/or Google than it is of Apple. That is, an absence of Microsoft Office wouldn’t prevent all business users embracing Apple products, and those that were to do so would have to seek out alternative office suites. If Microsoft were to lose its Office hegemony then it really would all be over for the company.

I’ve been using Google Docs more and more lately (I’m writing this on Google Docs right now), and my verdict is that for the vast majority of users it is at least an adequate replacement for Office, and for many users Google Docs’ collaborative capabilities make it superior. There will still be plenty of “Excel Jockeys” with all sorts of macros that will want to keep buying their Microsoft licenses. But I think that such Microsoft Office users may just become an interesting niche themselves one day soon.

I happily accept that such speculation of Microsoft’s demise as is written here and has been commented on elsewhere might be, as they say, greatly exaggerated. But sudden demise or descent into irrelevance is a path well-trodden by technology giants over the decades. IBM managed to survive only by becoming a completely different company. For those of us old enough to remember, Digital’s acquisition by Compaq (Compaq!) was utterly astounding. Microsoft’s recent moves feel to me eerily similar to Sun Microsystems’ too-little, too-late response to Linux. Just maybe we are about to witness the sun setting on Microsoft, too. Let me know what you think.