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How Would GNU/Linux Users Be Affected if Yahoo/Microsoft Went Through?

Originally published in Datamation in February 2008 and reached the front page of Slashdot

Articles about Microsoft's bid have probably tired you to death by now, but this article discusses one particular aspect of the potential takeover, namely its effect on GNU/Linux and BSD users. Here is a point-by-point analysis of the impact, which ought to cover several of the key issues.

Funding to the Source

In order to improve its public image, Yahoo recently organized initiatives like workshops which are targeted at open source developers. Think of these as the distant equivalent of Google's Summer of Code, which provided funding to Free software projects such as KDE, WordPress, Drupal and various independent projects that begin as nothing more than a proposal from an ambitious computer science student with spare time.

Microsoft sells software for the desktop, unlike Yahoo which is more focused on services that are delivered over the Web. Had Microsoft acquired Yahoo, there would either be a conflict of interests or a situation where open source projects receive funding if and only if they build upon (even enrich) the Microsoft stack, including Windows. The Yahoo we once knew would no longer offer the same kind of treatment to Free software.

Duplication Makes Convergence

Yahoo and Microsoft offer many similar services and software. There is plenty of overlap. It would be insane to keep maintaining two competitive products within the same company, so either convergence or deprecation is expected.

Under Microsoft's 'regime', so to speak, Yahoo's software and services are likely to get worse for GNU/Linux users rather than get any better. Due to the companies' scale, there are complicated vested interests at play. For starters, think about software compatibility with multiple operating systems. But let's explore this even further in the sections below.

Open Source Zimbra

Members of the development community of Zimbra, as well as various customers using the software, are rightly worried. Yahoo acquired Zimbra a relatively short while ago and Zimbra competes quite directly against Microsoft Outlook, Exchange, and parts of the "Live"-branded services.

Had Microsoft acquired Yahoo, it is very unlikely that Microsoft would assist businesses that defect away from it by actually fostering Zimbra. Would a plug be pulled? Zimbra typically runs on a Free software stack with GNU/Linux at the very bottom of this stack. Would Microsoft keep Zimbra and make it more Microsoft stack-oriented? Would it change the project's goals and direction just as it did with Xen after Citrix, arguably a Microsoft ally, had acquired XenSource?

Lights Out for LAMP and FreeBSD?

Yahoo is somewhat popular among BSD advocates because it takes pride in its deployment of FreeBSD-powered servers. Interestingly enough, Hotmail too used to run FreeBSD before it was acquired by Microsoft. Hotmail is believed to have been migrated to Microsoft technologies since the takeover, but more recent rumors tend to deny this. Can Microsoft be using Free software very secretly? Can it actually hide this significant nugget of information from the public eye?

For a definite fact, various Microsoft sites run or depend on GNU/Linux. Networking equipment, including routers at Redmond, has components in it which are built using embedded Linux. Microsoft's fairly recent $6 billion acquisition of aQuantive was a case of buying a company whose infrastructure is based on Free software too. The same goes for Newsvine, which Microsoft acquired last year. So what would be the destiny of Yahoo's own servers? It is difficult to tell, but it is possible that a switchover is inevitable.

Web Browser Support

Yahoo has a history of being relatively Linux-hostile and sometimes hostile towards Web browsers other than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. This is a reputation that Yahoo simply earned for itself. Would this ever be improved had an acquisition by Microsoft materialized? Would things be getting even worse? The latter seems more likely.

Silverlight in Yahoo?

Silverlight is a new technology from Microsoft and it competes directly against Adobe's Flash. Silverlight works on Apple Macs and Windows PCs, but not on other platforms. A project from Novell called Moonlight strives to fill the gap for GNU/Linux users and it sometimes gives the illusion that Silverlight is in fact supported under GNU/Linux. But there are limitations imposed on distribution. Software patent woes play a role as well.

“It is important to remember that Silverlight can be used to discriminate against GNU/Linux users, turn them away from Web sites in a variety of ways, or make them more sensitive to software patent threats.”Using its channel of partners and its own Web properties, Microsoft has slowly begun spreading Silverlight across the Web. Silverlight is even being recommended now among the system updates for Windows users, alongside security patches. Microsoft.com is said to be heading towards a Silverlight-rich redesign whose purpose seems to make this technology more widespread and thus unavoidable. Would Yahoo follow suit had Microsoft acquired it? Yahoo is the most visited Web site in the World Wide Web, based on Alexa's traffic ranks.

It is important to remember that Silverlight can be used to discriminate against GNU/Linux users, turn them away from Web sites in a variety of ways, or make them more sensitive to software patent threats. Moonlight is, after all, built upon Mono, which is a clone of .NET, for which Novell pays royalties as a form of legal coverage.

Moderation Policies

On several occasions in the past year, Yahoo was accused of censorship against open source software. Yahoo Answers, for example, rejected and deleted advice advocating the use of GNU/Linux or BSD. Yahoo remained silent for many months before complaints became loud. It then responded to this by saying that it was not a matter of policy. Mischievous moderators are likely to be reprimanded.

One cannot help but think that if Yahoo was staffed by Microsoft employees or if Yahoo's existing staff served Microsoft, then competitive threats such as Free software would be treated less fairly than ever before. According to Mary Jo Foley, a long-time journalist specialising in Microsoft's business, the company may have recently been caught altering search results to assist or defend business goals.

Yahoo, unlike Microsoft, has its search engine used by many different people, so corporate censorship, as opposed to political censorship, is an iffy territory to approach. Tolerance and balance is what makes the Web more credible, whereas policing has trust eroding.



Ways Forward and Conclusion

Amid new rumours and unapproved reports that Rupert Murdoch wishes to bid for Yahoo, one ought to think about the dangers of consolidation. When two companies collide or merge, another is often marginalized. This was seen just a week ago when Nokia acquired Trolltech, hurting some of its rivals in the process.

The main sufferer here, just in case Yahoo and Microsoft are combined to gain market share, is Google. Being one of the prominent supporters of Linux, Google deserves defending against this possible acquisition. Moreover, for the reasons listed above, GNU/Linux users ought to realize that there is nothing too encouraging about the big news from last week.



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