Could Microsoft make a new Linux X11?

When evaluating Microsoft’s long-term strategic positioning of its core business over the past decade, it is clear to see the cracks that have been forming in a dominating mainstay of the computing world. And it is an instructive story, and one still in the making, about how fast things (businesses, trends, ideas, etc.) can be built and how they can erode just as fast.

And of course, part of the story includes Bill Gates’ decision to bow out, and the ascent of Steve Ballmer’s ascent, notwithstanding the antics, rages, utterances, and more antics. But one utterance I want to pick up on is the one that “Linux is a cancer”. Really?

Now, I want to see Linux succeed, but success seems to be best measured in technology by how well you can say “It just works”. And as we all know, no matter which year you’re reading this, this year is definitely the Year of Linux. No, really, this is the year. But joking aside, Linux’s progress is happening at a super-linear rate. It is indeed making itself a viable competitor, even if we can clearly say that its status in the OS market is clearly 3rd to Windows and Mac OS X.

The threat to Windows from Macs comes on a dimension that Windows can’t really directly compete on — hardware. Windows has made itself more user-friendly, and it can probably push the limits of its own capabilities further to provide an alternatively intuitive UI to Mac OS. But whether it’s the similarity of Mac OS X on Mac computers to the iOS on iPod/iPhone/iPad, the nice integration of those devices with Mac computers, or just the quality of construction of Mac hardware that is evident in every detail, a better Windows alone is not enough to mount an answer to the Apple surge. For Windows to have a chance, it might need to incentivize more attractive hardware, much in the way Intel has delivered the Ultrabook challenge.

But Linux competes with Windows in a head-to-head sort of fashion. If you can install Windows on a machine, then you can install Linux on it, too. Microsoft’s bright idea is to just lock Linux out of the picture by just asking hardware providers to engineer their boards in such a way as to only work with Windows and to retrofit the PR spin for this as a “security feature”. But, as always, technology evolves, and trying to stop a technology is like trying to stop evolution.

Ok, here’s where I put down the Linux trumpet. Microsoft does kind of have a point — a lot of software that supports the Linux/UNIX ecosystem is cloned from existing products in the Windows or Mac OS X worlds. At least, this has been historically true, especially for non-programming related software. Some things are said to be ‘broken’ and yet find a way to outlive their wanted-ness, like ACL’s or X11 or easy management of device support.

And furthermore, here’s what I want to know: if Microsoft is afraid of Linux becoming the next wave of computing, why doesn’t it try to ride this wave? It’s sort of like diversifying the portfolio, but the investment is through actions, not money. And why not go after the tightest knot to unravel, the Hail Mary pass, which is to make a windowing system that would completely replace X Windows, and perhaps even a breeze to program in?

This isn’t the most original idea — after all, Mac OS X is like Aqua on top of BSD Unix, and Microsoft is known to copy Apple wherever possible. But it seems the most logical one. Which other company would stand to gain the most from doing this? Which other company has the resources to research and be able to implement what seems to be the most promising UI replacement for Unix/Linux, which could use TLC. Apple doesn’t have as much to gain, since their business model seems to be doing what it takes to sell more hardware. Apple would be probably the least likely to do so, for the same reason that Mac OS X only works on Apple computers. And if it’s a any sort of cosmic sign of the need for something new for a *nix windowing system, I started writing this post a couple of days ago, and the latest XKCD comic appeared last night referring to X11′s frustrating nature:

Thomas Jefferson thought that every law and every constitution should be torn down and rewritten from scratch every nineteen years--which means X is overdue.

Wouldn’t it be something? You install a free OS, and then you decide whether you want to pay $50-100 for a nice UI, and perhaps a host of other nice but un-obligatory additions to Linux (e.g., fonts, Windows phone sync software, cheesy games, etc.) How bizarre, yet logical, that would be. I’m not saying that I want MS to be the one to step up and do this. I think there are already open-source projects on the go to replace X11, and I hope that they come to completion soon and are good. But I think it would be interesting if there’s a commercial MS alternative with some Aero-like UI, and it would continue to tie MS’s success to Linux’s success as well, if Linux does continue its growth trend.

Microsoft just sounds like a sleeping giant that’s too lazy to get up, and time will tell what we see in the end. But if it does end up being a little strategic along lines like this, it would signal that Microsoft is coming out with products that strategically invade Linux’s environment. You know, the first one would be like a beachhead to enable more to proliferate… sort of like a “cancer”.