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Open Letter to fellow ex-Microsoftie Steven Sinofsky

Congratulations on leaving Microsoft. Unless you have bills to pay, you won’t regret it. I left at the end of 2004, and have since studied a vast and amazing — but still flawed — world of computing out there.

For example, I discovered that we should already have cars that (optionally) drive us around and computers that talk to us. And that Linux on the desktop is powerful and rich but failing because of several strategic mistakes. Google claims to be a friend of Linux and free software, but most of their interesting AI code is locked up. Programming should be a part of basic math literacy for every child. The biotechnology world is proprietary like Microsoft, which is stunting progress in new medicines and safer devices.

The most important lesson is that the free software world outside Microsoft is much bigger and richer. No matter what aspect of technology you want to work on, there are codebases and communities out there. Even the large companies who write proprietary software like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter use free software as their base. So you first find out what you want to work on, and then you find the existing codebases and communities to join. In some cases, the are multiple, so you need to decide which best meets your needs.

The good news is that there are already millions of smart people working on any aspect of technology you’d like to work on. That is important because now that you have left Microsoft, you greatly lose the ability to control your own destiny using their technology.

When I first left Microsoft, I took on a consulting job helping a team build a website which used Microsoft Passport as the authentication mechanism. However, as I ran into problems, even Google wasn’t able to help because the knowledge and ability I needed to fix my problems was locked up behind the Microsoft firewalls. Fixing a problem in proprietary software can sometimes feel like performing witchcraft — you have to try lots of random incantations because you can’t know what is really going on. In the free software world, the code, buglists, specs, discussions, etc. are public, and anyone is welcome to contribute. A warning though, it can be like herding cats.

I read you have a Microsoft Surface. I recommend getting another machine and installing Mint-Debian Linux. You’ve probably heard of Ubuntu, but Debian is the 1000-person team that provides the rock Ubuntu builds upon. Mint is a very popular re-spin that adds mp3 playback and other features that have patent risks and can’t be part of the free Debian system. The Windows app store is a Potemkin village compared to what Linux offers. I remember you have a Unix background, I recommend refreshing your knowledge of the command line and reading some new books. I felt like a stranger in a strange land for the first couple of months, but it became perfectly comfortable to me, and has numerous advantages such that now I am as interested in using Windows as I am in using DOS.

I don’t recommend you bother with Apple. They have a proprietary walled garden even smaller than Microsoft’s. If you find a problem with Apple’s technology, your best option is to wait. If you find a problem anywhere in the free software world, you can file a bug, talk to a person, (usually) find a workaround, write some code, hire someone — or wait.

The other nice thing about this global community is that you don’t have to go anywhere to join. You can write code in your pajamas from Seattle and send it to Linus Torvalds in Portland who works from home in his. The Linux kernel alone has 3,000 programmers, scattered all over the earth, some of whom live in countries that are officially at war with each other.

Enjoy your new-found freedom. I have written a book about much of this you can read for free. It contains many things I didn’t know until I left. There are many news sites to learn about what is going on in Linux. I personally use LinuxHomePage, but every community has blog aggregators

14 comments to Open Letter to fellow ex-Microsoftie Steven Sinofsky

  • Pengineer

    The problem with “Free Open Source” is that it does not help pay the Bill’s. Hopefully he leaves with plenty of Money and he can help in the FOSS Community. I am sure he is under the threat of execution if he dares to push the Patent Line of no return. I am amazed that anything can get done with all the Patent Bulls….t out here today. Linux Mint is good, I find Fedora to be best, imagine that, a choice. Good luck Steven Sinofsky.

    • W. Anderson

      Unfortunately for many people like Pengineer, constantly repeating the very tired and ambiguous phrase of ““Free Open Source” is that it does not help pay the Bill’s” misleads many in the general public and is not supported by fact – particularly if one compares the larger Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) based commercial ventures business success – like RedHat, MySQL, IBM PowerLinux hardware and Linux Services, OpenStack, Android and references above to Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. with even those of Microsoft, HP, Dell – all of which are losing their shirts in the Proprietary software environment.
      Yes, careful consideration of FOSS technlogies, resources, communiytiesare important – but such is exactly same in the proprietary sphere.

      • Andy D'Arcy Jewell

        Free and Open Source Software pays my bills. Admittedly, I’ve kept those bills as small as I can, but we live comfortably.

        And in fact, there are some people who are making a real fat wad with FOSS.

  • Ashish Nabira

    There are tons of people who wrote open source softwares and get paid. Red Hat have hundreds of such people paid for community work…..It’s growing like crazy. when I jumped into the open source world, I felt free to use anything and I can open my own business without spending anything at all…..I contribute to some opensource projects though :-) and spread word about the options available today as compared to MS and Apple. I need to spread word about freeing education system now …Thank you Open Source :-)

  • […] former Microsoft employee tried telling Sinofsky that it is a lost cause: Congratulations on leaving Microsoft. Unless you have bills to pay, you […]

  • Miguel Betancourt

    I just have a word to say. Nice

  • Michael Leones

    Microsoft is a misguided company. They remind me a large container ship in an open sea with no engine power. Their failing business plan is also showing effects on Seattle economy where I live. I don’t think Linux community can gain anything from him or another Microsoftee. I remember in 1995 when I was talking about Linux people thought that I lost my mind while I was a contractor for the Redmond. They simply have no guidance and they have no problem lifting the codes of others.

  • Michael Bombolbi

    Hello, I don’t think I leave Microsoft, I really need Microsoft Windows, and distributions of Linux do not work perfectly and does not have support in everything like Windows has, I tried Open Suse, Ubuntu and so on, and all of them in certain moment have failed, Windows maybe is not the best for some people but for me is the best and it works, and solves my problem.

  • Douglas E Knapp

    You say Linux has failed you? True, it can be unstable, especially Ubuntu. But, MS has failed me much more often and with bigger failures that are often not possible to fix. Linux on the other hand has problems that mostly get fixed within 2 weeks, often 2 hours, once reported. I suggest you try Sabayon. It is not for the newbie but it is rock solid.

  • Dave Kiwerski

    I left Microsoft back in the days of Windows95 for Linux – 6 computers at home – and have NEVER looked back. I smply got fed up with fixing a beta-class ‘OS’ several times a week for my teenagers. We’re running Linux Mint and are very happy. Rock solid. Stick with the main Linux distributions such as Mint, Debian, etc. and you’ll find that they’re very stable.

    Also, I’ve seen the time involved by our IT guy just trying to keep up with all the instabilities of Windows (2000, XP) at work, and that’s only about 100 desktops, not to mention the Windows server. Things were much better when we were running Novell on the servers. TGhen we got IT personnel that didn’t know how to use a keyboard, only a mouse….

    Good for leaving Microsoft! Now your opportunities are limitless.

  • Just Someguy

    @Michael B

    I’ve used Microsoft products for 16 years, until I started playing around with Linux and I realized “Holy crap. This it the way to go.” – There were some neat things that Microsoft did (DirectX, despite all its bloat and resource issues) but nothing that made me want to stick around for long. I switched over completely 4 years ago and also am not looking back. I actually do use OpenSuSE and there’s no major issue that I’ve run into yet that made me even think of going back. And no, I am not a basic user. A power user. I game on it as well (Egads… From having stuff like Warcraft 3, Fallout 3, Diablo 2+3 and whatnot in Wine to Heroes of Newerth, Minecraft and now the beta STEAM client for Linux and Valve games… Emerging Kickstarter projects, etc etc) and have had no problems.

    Not sure what you ran into, but I’m sure there’s an answer for it and you just didn’t look much.

    This is not to say it doesn’t have issues. As my wise friend puts if “All operating systems suck. Linux just sucks much less than most”. He really does speak some truth there. I’ve had far more pains with Windows (Read: Windows update messing things up as well as the actual repair tool borking installs to the point where they can’t be repaired in Vista AND W7, bugs, etc) than I’ve had with Linux. I’d rather go with the learning curve and come to know something useful in the process than bang my head against the desk and be unable to figure out what the issue is because a registry element that is Windows specific is not documented, but somehow got botched…

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