Is Microsoft secretly using open source?

Summary:Reportedly, Microsoft has been using open-source computer code in several major products, despite denying it did so and campaigning against the software.

Microsoft Corp., even while mounting a new campaign against open-source software, has quietly been using such free computer code in several major products, as well as on key portions of a popular Web site -- despite denying last week that it did so.

Software connected with the FreeBSD open-source operating system is used in several places deep inside several versions of Microsoft's Windows software, such as in the "TCP/IP" section that arranges all connections to the Internet. The company also uses FreeBSD on numerous "server" computers that manage major functions at its Hotmail free e-mail service, whose registered users exceed 100 million and make it one of the Web's busiest sites.

Microsoft acknowledged its repeated use of open-source code Friday, in response to questions about the matter. Just two days earlier, it had specifically denied the existence of any such software at Hotmail.

"Open-source" programs, such as the popular Linux operating system, are typically free and allow users to view and modify blueprint-like instructions known as source code. The growing popularity of such software is among the most potent competition for some of Microsoft's products, and for a new technology it has proposed called Microsoft.NET.

In recent statements, Microsoft executives have argued that open-source software is dangerous to companies using it, in large part because of the licensing provisions that accompany the software. Microsoft Vice President Craig Mundie, for example, said in a recent speech that all open-source software "has inherent security risks and can force intellectual property into the public domain."

FreeBSD used on Hotmail?
But Microsoft's statements Friday suggest the company has itself been taking advantage of the very technology it has insisted would bring dire consequences to others. "I am appalled at the way Microsoft bashes open source on the one hand, while depending on it for its business on the other," said Marshall Kirk McKusick, a leader of the FreeBSD development team.

While not as well-known as Linux, FreeBSD has a strong following in the technical community. Much of Microsoft's use of the software at Hotmail was uncovered Thursday evening by Trevor Johnson, a FreeBSD developer in Los Angeles who used standard Internet monitoring tools to check on the computers at Hotmail. Johnson said he acted because he was skeptical of Microsoft's claim, in a Wall Street Journal article Thursday, that there was no FreeBSD left at the service.

When Microsoft moved to buy Hotmail in 1997, it was already running on FreeBSD, and continued to do so for several years, a source of some embarrassment to Microsoft. The company had earlier said, though, that it removed all FreeBSD from Hotmail last summer, and even has a lengthy technical paper on its Web site describing the transition.

But Friday, Microsoft conceded FreeBSD was still being used at Hotmail on machines that track advertising and that run a crucial Internet function known as "DNS hosting." A Microsoft spokesman said he couldn't explain why Microsoft had given out incorrect information on the topic.

The spokesman said FreeBSD was still in use simply because the company had yet to switch the machines over to Windows.

But one employee of the Redmond, Wash., company said Microsoft has deliberately kept FreeBSD in parts of Hotmail because of its technical superiority over Windows in important functions and furthermore had decided to actually increase its reliance on FreeBSD. Many of the company's Web sites went down much of a day in January, and this person said FreeBSD was judged to be better than Windows at helping to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

On Friday, several FreeBSD volunteers combing through Microsoft products, including the new Windows 2000 operating system, found numerous instances where Microsoft had made use of their software -- something perfectly legal for it to do. The Microsoft spokesman, in acknowledging that fact, said it didn't contradict the company's many recent anti-open-source statements. He said that's because Microsoft's main objection has been to Linux, which has a more restrictive licensing arrangement than FreeBSD.

Microsoft, though, hasn't previously suggested that there were benign forms of open-source software, and while singling out Linux for special criticism, has tended to criticize all open-source with the same broad brush.

In its campaign against open-source, Microsoft has been unable to come up with examples of companies being harmed by it. One reason, said Eric von Hippel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who heads up a research effort in the field, is that virtually all the available evidence suggests that open source is "a huge advantage" to companies. "They are able to build on a common standard that is not owned by anyone," he said. "With Windows, Microsoft owns them."

Topics: Microsoft, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software, Windows

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