VNU Net: Microsoft keeps its options open on source code

By Andy Donoghue, VNU

After the celebrations surrounding the launch of Windows 2000,
Microsoft was jolted backed to reality last week by the resumption
of its anti-trust trial with the US government.

With the Department of Justice (DoJ) giving the company less
room to manoeuvre, industry watchers believe that Microsoft may be
considering settlement options. In a recent interview with
Bloomberg Television in the US, Bill Gates allegedly hinted that
the software giant would possibly capitulate if a break-up was on
the cards and offer to open up its Windows source code.

Bloomberg said that when the Microsoft chairman was asked
whether he would be prepared to open up the code to settle with the
DoJ, he replied: “Yes, if that’s all it took.”

Shortly after the interview was released Microsoft vehemently
denied that Gates had made these comments. “He just said that we
would be doing our best to settle the case,” said a Microsoft

If Gates made the comment, it flies in the face of the official
Microsoft party line on the issue as well the position he outlined
last year. Following the release of the DoJ’s conclusions last
November, Gates was asked about the open source option, but
rejected it outright.

The closed option
“The only thing that we know for sure that would be bad for
consumers is anything that blocked us from being able to innovate
Windows, or anything that made it so that when people buy Windows
they don’t know what is in it. Beyond those two principles, we’ll
be as pragmatic as we can,” said Gates.

A deal would benefit both sides. Microsoft could avoid a
devastating remedy that could split the company, and the DoJ could
avoid years of litigation that would result from Microsoft’s
inevitable appeal of any negative ruling. However, no one is sure
whether the open source model would benefit Microsoft users in the
long term.

Gary Barnett, an analyst at industry monitor Ovum, argues that
releasing the Windows source code would be to the detriment of the
quality of Microsoft’s software.

“I can’t see that opening up the software to thousands of
developers all round the world, with no contractual requirements,
would be an improvement on 100 expert developers who work with the
software day in and day out for the same company,” says

He argues that the open source model is not the Utopian
environment for software development that many of its
would have people believe, and that
Microsoft and its customers would not benefit from releasing the
code. “Linux is a good solid Unix variant, but it is not a
world-beating operating system,” he says.

Good for developers
Barnett claims that those who believe Windows is
proprietary and that users would benefit if more developers had
access to the code
to develop more open architectures are
“Windows NT has more software vendors than any other
platform at the moment, so the proprietary tag doesn’t wash,” he

Although Sun Microsystems has not yet made its software open
source, Chris Sarfas, the company’s marketing manager, believes
that the model would benefit Microsoft’s customers. He argues that
while Microsoft controls the access to its code, certain
applications run better on Windows than others. “With open source
you get the advantage of the best developers getting the best
code,” he says.

Sarfas said what is listed in documentation describing the
parameters of a closed-source operating system is not always
exactly what is in the final release. If developers have access to
the source code first-hand, users are guaranteed that the
applications they are using are integrated as tightly as possible
with the operating system. “What we say is going to be in the
operating system is not always exactly what is in it,” he says.

Last year Sun partially opened the source code for Java and will
follow suit with Solaris this month. However, the company is not
following the completely open model favoured by the Linux community
and has instead opted for a more conservative option. Under the
scheme known as the Community Source Licensing Model, developers
can use Solaris free of charge in non-commercial applications, but
will pay licence fees if they incorporate it into commercial

Come judgement day
While the issue of opening the Windows source code continues to
generate controversy, Microsoft’s options are becoming more limited
as the day of judgement approaches.

If the company was worried by Judge Thomas Jackson’s so-called
findings of fact last November – that the company was guilty of
“harming any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could
intensify competition against one of Microsoft’s core products” –
it will be less than happy with his latest analogy.

Speaking at the restart of the trial last week, Jackson came as
close to laying his cards on the table than at any point thus far
by comparing Microsoft with Standard Oil, which was broken up in
1912 by US courts because of anti-competitive behaviour.

Jackson’s decision based on the latest round of hearings is
expected in six weeks. However, he is not expected to comment until
he hears from the settlement talks continuing in Chicago.