Some comments on the Gartner report on FOSS on Microsoft Windows

Short URL:


I had heard about the latest Gartner report claiming that Microsoft Windows will become the dominant platform for "Open Source" (and free) software in the future. While there are certainly a number of reasons why some FOSS has and will continue to be written that also runs under Microsoft Windows, I think the fundamental premise is wrong.

Since FOSS software is licensed in ways that enable others to modify and port software to other platforms at their choice, it is very natural that such software will migrate to platforms like Microsoft Windows, and tend to become more cross platform in nature overall, over time. Some software is deliberately designed portable from the start, as this offers technical advantages. The most important technical advantage is perhaps having different platforms and different compilers expose underlying bugs that might otherwise get missed. This is just one way that software freedom tends to also result in higher quality code, and one of the more indirect ways that it happens.

Another reason for seeing more FOSS software under Microsoft Windows is the rise of portable and platform neutral runtime environments, starting with Java, and more recently with things like Portable.NET, Mono, etc. However, the second largest barrier facing Microsoft Windows as a FOSS platform, outside of the proprietary nature of the platform itself, is Microsoft, and the way they build and distribute their development tools.

The best example of this can be found in the way collaborative tools work in Microsoft development environments. These are designed well to exchange information "within the castle walls" of companies and organizations, but in doing so, they have no vision or active support for the wider notion of community driven development, or even for supporting development over multiple third parties. Where in any Unix, there is a somewhat universal /usr[/local]/include and /usr[/local]/lib to drop shared header files and link libraries from arbitrary software components, this concept does not exist at all in Microsoft Windows development tools.

Even for shared development of source, where the FOSS world has fundamental enabling tools like subversion, cvs, etc., Microsoft locks their users into an aptly named source control environment they call "Source Safe", which focuses on the castle wall approach to software collaboration. They do have hooks which allows third parties to create version control backends by having them behave like they are Source Safe. This is a self referential culture, and one that is about excluding, rather than including, others in development.

It is for these reasons together (the proprietary nature of Microsoft Windows as a platform, and the limited proprietary nature of collaborate development that Microsoft envisions and promotes through its development suites) that I think will continue to limit Microsoft Windows as a platform where FOSS is usually ported to, rather than one where FOSS originates.



Terry Hancock's picture

Well, obviously, people who WRITE free software are big believers in the benefits of free software, so it seems pretty obvious that they are going to prefer free software platforms.

And if the developers are running free platforms, then it stands to reason that the free platforms will be the first ones they support.

That seems really obvious to me.

I think how they get away with making this kind of claim is that as long as more users are using Windows, that free software (along with all other kinds of software) will more often be run on Windows than on GNU/Linux. But that's kind of a trivial and unimportant metric -- it's not talking about issue with any weight to development, it's just talking about sheer numbers of copies of a particular build of a package.

So, for example, it's probably trivially true that more people are running Mozilla Firefox on Windows than on Linux -- but do you really think of Windows as Firefox's target platform?

This is just playing around with statistics. The truth is, free platforms will continue to dominate with free software developers, and users who want the best experience with free software will do well to run it on free platforms, because that's where the serious debugging and testing is going on.

Peter Anderson 0's picture

I happen to think the Gartner Group are probably correct!

Now before you jump to the wrong collusion, I'm not a Microsoft apologist, I HAVE tried Linux (many distributions and quite like Ubuntu and PCLinuxOS). I am also a great supporter of FOSS (I choose to use OOo, even though I have a copy of MS Office that I own), I use Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, I use FileZilla, I use Python rather than Visual/.NET whatever, etc. etc. However, I can't quite make the permanent switch to Linux.

The reasons are twofold:

Firstly, I can't get a printer (Samsung ML-1740) to work as well as it does under Windows (I can't get my Canon LBP-1210 to work at all!). Also, prior to ADSL, I could never get dial-up internet connections to work as easily as they do under Windows.

And secondly, the software development tools that I use (TextPad ( and HTMLPad ( don't have any real equivalents under Linux. TextPad, for example, is a simple text editor but its features such as editable clip library make HTML/CSS and Python coding very simple, and the way it handles regular expressions is very simple and just works - I have a regular task where I copy fixed format text from an on-line journal and paste it into TextPad, then a series of quick 'search and replace' routines completely strips out the formatting and saves my about ten pages when I print the current journal. I can't find Linux based editors that have either clip libraries or that handle the finding and replacing of regular expressions such as tabs and carriage returns.

I can hear you say - TextPad and HTMLPad are not FOSS, I know but they are shareware and from my perspective both FOSS and shareware are close cousins and I don't bother to split hairs over the differences. Again, I don't bother too much which operating system the software runs on, its the application software that matters. As I said above, I like the concept of FOSS and so have a preference for Linux, but at the end of the day I'll choose the environment where I am most productive and most comfortable. For me (unfortunately) that's Windows at this point in time.

There is another side of the issue that many FOSS supporters seem to choose to ignore and that's the lack of quality and usability of many FOSS titles - Abiword is one that comes readily to mind. Good FOSS is really good (Python for example) but there is a great deal of dross.


Dave Guard's picture

Well I know for sure that GEdit deals with finding and replacing tabs and carriage returns. I do this on a very regular basis as an editor. I don't know about its clip libraries.

I'm sure you can find a FOSS editor that does what you want. It just might require a bit of searching around. Even seasoned FOSS veterans don't know about every FOSS application out there. I hope someone else reads this who can help you find FOSS alternatives. Again, I'm sure what you need is out there.


Author information

David Sugar's picture


David Sugar is an active maintainer for a number of packages that are part of the GNU project, including GNU Bayonne. He has served as the voluntary chairman of the FSF’s DotGNU steering committee, as a founder and CTO for Open Source Telecomm Corporation, and currently owns and operates Tycho Softworks.