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A once-unthinkable alliance shows Microsoft is ready to play ball

Commentary: Microsoft's embrace of Linux and Apple's OS X through a tool called Bash is a move only a developer could love. But it shows a healthy feistiness the company has sorely lacked.

Windows, meet the Bash command line from Linux.
Windows 10's PowerShell command-line tool will be joined by a rival, Linux's Bash.
Josh Miller/CNET

At its Build conference on Wednesday, Microsoft did something that made my jaw drop.

It wasn't the HoloLens augmented reality demonstration. Or the Cortana digital assistant. Or the push to build other bots. It was the announcement that Microsoft is bringing to Windows a developer-oriented tool that's central to two rival operating systems, Linux and Apple's OS X.

You needn't give a fig about that tool, called the Bourne Again Shell, or Bash. You should care, though, that Microsoft is bringing Bash to Windows because

it demonstrates how profoundly Microsoft has changed -- for the better

. In short, Microsoft is showing its old feisty spirit now that it's an underdog again. And that could bring innovation that benefits us all.

Microsoft in the 1990s built a robust business selling Windows, which still powers the vast majority of personal computers, and its Office suite of productivity apps. Then came the era of Internet access and smartphones, which gave Google and Apple the opportunity to show how complacent Microsoft had become.

Last decade, the plodding Microsoft responded to the competitive challenge of Linux with rhetoric and legal attacks, not through innovation. Linux is open-source software, meaning that anyone can look at its underlying code, modify it and use it in their own products for free. It was a hit with programmers. No wonder Linux now powers everything from Facebook's data centers to Google Android phones.

In 2001, the CEO at that time, Steve Ballmer, called Linux a "cancer," and that era's chief of Windows, Jim Allchin, called open-source software an "intellectual property destroyer." Microsoft launched legal attacks that led to patent licensing deals with Android phone sellers and have likely generated billions in revenue.

What Bash does

So you can imagine my surprise to hear Wednesday that Windows 10 will be able to run open-source Bash with a Linux translation technology developed with Microsoft rival and now "great partner" Canonical. The changes under Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella are that dramatic.

Bash lets you type Unix-style text commands to operate a computer the way people did in the days before mice, menus and windows. Indeed, the first Bash release was in 1989, a year before Microsoft released its first commercially successful version of Windows.

It's a nitty-gritty tool, but programmers still use such command-line interfaces. Green text on a black background isn't just for hacker characters in movies, and Bash is a powerful and popular option. Embracing it shows that Microsoft isn't afraid of competitive threats and that it's willing to pair its own software with the best of what others have to offer. The company's own programmers will have to prove their worth in a world where Windows no longer dominates.

That's why Microsoft has brought its Office software to Apple iPhones and iPads and to phones and tablets powered by Android. That's why it's embracing Web technologies that make browsers powerful enough to run apps that otherwise might be written for Windows. And that's why, in another move to court developers, Microsoft announced that its highly regarded Visual C++ programming tools can now build programs to run on Linux.

"Developers are the lifeblood of any platform and crucial to Microsoft's future," Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight, said after Microsoft's conference. "Build 2016 may not capture consumer attention, but it lays the foundations for greater innovation down the road."

So rejoice. Windows phones may be flops today, but this new philosophy means Microsoft is much more likely to build something you'll want tomorrow.