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Yes, we do need the MS Windows source code!

Apr 16, 1999, 00:06 (35 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Norm Jacobowitz)

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By Norm Jacobowitz

With the possibility of Microsoft being forced to open the source to all or part of their Windows Operating System(s), there is (naturally) a lot of debate erupting throughout the GNU/Linux and broader Open Source Communities. Nathan Myers has written an astute essay about why that is not a good idea.

Though Mr. Myers's essay is well reasoned, I believe he is wrong on several points. His first argument against opening the MS code is that the truly interesting code would remain hidden. That, in and of itself, is a true statement. But if the Windows code is open, that will create a greater impetus for other developers to follow suit and open their code, perhaps even the publishers of the aforementioned hidden code. Plus, forcing MS to open their source would be akin to the "shot heard round the world", the sound of the camel's back breaking on the old paradigm of proprietary software publishing.

Mr. Myers's second argument takes liberties with what people mean when they are suggesting opening of source code as a legal remedy in the DOJ suit. In other words, forcing MS to open their source code is just one of several possible remedies, more than one of which is likely to be inflicted upon Microsoft. So, the second argument collapses when you consider the fact that forcing MS to open source some or some parts of their products is just one of several remedies that would imposed at once. Releasing some or all of the Windows code would in no way insulate them from further action by DOJ or the States' Attorneys General; as far as I can tell from the popular media, no one from the DOJ is suggesting that opening the MS source code would be the only remedy.

Mr. Myers goes on to point out that individuals would not be free to build their own versions of Windows. Perhaps that would be true the minute MS opened their source code, but eventually hardware vendors would be forced to open the specs on their devices and/or the source to their drivers if they wanted this burgeoning market -- users of Open Source MS Windows -- to purchase their products. Vendors will comply, perhaps slowly at first ... but they will comply, just as many have done for GNU/Linux.

"If the Windows code is open, that will create a greater impetus for other developers to follow suit and open their code."

Finally, Mr. Myers says that opening MS Windows would benefit Microsoft because developers would contribute code back to improve the system. Well, I may be missing the boat entirely, but I thought that's what this whole GNU/Linux and Open Source phenomenon was all about: allowing people to have some or total control over the software they use. If releasing some or all of MS Windows to the Open Source Community means a better way of getting things done, isn't that a good thing? Also, if a decree demanding an opening of MS code is combined with other legal remedies, it is hard to see how individuals tailoring Windows to their own needs will help enforce an illegal Microsoft hegemony over the software world.

To help end Microsoft's allegedly illegal monopolistic practices (remember, they have not been convicted yet) Mr. Myers suggests a major fine in lieu of a demand for an Open Source MS Windows. I agree with that suggestion -- but why not fine them AND demand the source code?

Basically, I believe there are four major points that make an Open Source MS Windows a good idea:

  1. Any code, no matter how poorly written and kludgey it may be, deserves to be revealed in the public arena, for review by the greater programming community. (The obvious exceptions include software designed for national security interests, etc.) Even if the code turns out to be horrible, we can use it in tutorials about how NOT to code.
  2. Open Source Software is good because it lets people be more productive and live happier, wealthier lives ... lives over which people have more individual control. Right now closed source MS Windows prevents millions of people from having control over what they do when they use information technology. Even though those millions of people now have a choice about which O/S they use, wouldn't it be better to give them one more Open Source alternative?
  3. Like it or not, there are some very brilliant people working for Microsoft Corporation. Putting the fruits of their labor into the Open Source Community would in the long run be good for everyone. Sure, MS code is known for bugginess and unreliability, but combining the talent now hidden in Redmond with the talent in our pool of great programmers could only improve the lives of everyone involved.
  4. Ending the giant struggle between Microsoft and the GNU/Linux (and broader Open Source Communities), and getting down to the brass tacks of making software work better for everyone, will be better than the current waste of resources and intellectual effort now being waged. Look at it this way: the GNU/Linux System is the WORST computing environment in the world ... except for all the others. What is wrong with making all available computing options much, much better?

To this end, as part of my regular column, Linux Review, Linux Resources has posted a petition calling for the Opening of MS Windows 9x source code. If you agree with my position, stated herein, please go to that page and enter your electronic "signature." If you still disagree with the idea that MS Windows should be Open Source, please send me a message at normj@ssc.com and explain why; I want to hear your opinion. Whatever your position, it is good that people like Nathan Myers take the time to write a well-reasoned position essay, instead of haphazardly flaming or remaining silent about their views. Thanks, Nathan Myers.

Norm Jacobowitz is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Seattle, WA, USA. His weekly column, Linux Review, is available at LinuxResources.Com.