Microsoft's magnificent seven open-source options

Microsoft's magnificent seven open-source options

Summary: Joining the open-source club has many benefits. How many Microsoft receives depends on how far it wants to go

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Now Microsoft has officially decided that the GPL is a good thing and is using it to release code for Linux, it's time for the software company to take advantage of the many good things that being a member of the open-source club brings. It's not quite the Berlin Wall coming down — not yet — but reunification may be on the cards.

So what should Microsoft do to get the maximum benefits from the peace dividend?

1. Fix Internet Explorer
As Office 2010's online editions are dependent on huge amounts of JavaScript, browser performance is going to become key. And IE8 lags badly. Even if it makes little difference in practice, the marketing importance of having a competitive JavaScript engine will be immense.

But all the really good innovation here is open source — so use it. Spend your time solving problems that haven't been solved yet, like the browser interface. A tabbed browsing front end gets really stale, really quickly if you're trying to use multiple web-based applications.

2. Fix Windows application management
Windows application management is actively dangerous — because it almost doesn't exist. Life on the Windows desktop is a nightmare of different applications trying to call home, warn about security updates, battling for control. Have fun trying to cleanly remove something, too. Open-source OSes have package management that is so swish, it's almost an app store.

Take it, Microsoft, and give away the Windows integration so it can get even better.

3. Fix Windows Mobile
Even if there was a magic wand that could be waved over the existing Windows Mobile system to turn it into the most fabulous mobile OS ever, it wouldn't help much.

The future of mobile most probably belongs to the thin-client, cloudy, smart terminal, location aware, best-web-experience-ever approach. Open source has great chunks of that sorted. Put intensely good Windows integration on top of that, add decent corporate support for security and management, and you've got a strong story for OEMs and enterprise alike.

4. Give up on the FAT patents already
It's a revenue stream, but it's also a commitment to the old way of extorting money through the cold equations of power and probability.

With predatory patent trolls posing far more of a threat to Microsoft than anything open source can do, the best you can get out of aggressive patent blackmailing as an innovator is a zero-sum game.

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It's a Cold War stand-off, and you know how that ends. Better to throw your weight behind patent reform and IP renewal, and help create an environment where fair rewards in an open culture win over lawyer-driven wallet jousting.

5. Open source XP
A radical move, but not for the obvious reasons. Microsoft doesn't want to sell XP; it gets in the way of its grand Windows 7-and-upward plan.

The OS is already largely indistinguishable from its open-source competition: support is mostly community based, people who have bought XP once already see no problem in breaking their licence conditions and just using copies from anywhere thereafter, and it is sufficiently far behind the cutting edge to make it a lightweight, flexible platform that runs well on cheap hardware.

By making it open source, Microsoft could execute a smart end-run around the netbook Linux threat — which is still there — and could legitimise the de facto state of affairs in the developing world while strengthening its brand.

6. Save the world from device driver misery — forever
There is no technical reason why a unified API could not be developed for device drivers across multiple operating systems. There is only lack of will.

But such an API could only work if entirely open, with a heavy bias towards open source in the code as well. Microsoft could use its monopoly position to create such an environment, but only if it were seen as a bona fide community member.

We don't know how much time and effort Microsoft expends on device driver testing and validation, but it's too much, and it's not working. Better to put the responsibility back where it belongs, with the manufacturers, by making their lives as easy as possible.

7. Save the world from antivirus software
It's a toss-up whether the average corporation loses more through having to buy, support and suffer antivirus software than it would through viruses.

As with device drivers, Microsoft has the unique power to create an open framework for AV collaborative work that influences application, OS and security design — but only if it is seen as trustworthy. It has that chance now.

All the above use open-source ideas to give Microsoft things it doesn't have and free it up to work on the things it does best. And, incidentally, these ideas also let it become the sort of company it pretends to be already.

That's the point of open: if you play by the rules, everyone wins.


Topic: Tech Industry

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • MS Open-Source/Proprietary Hybrid

    Rupert I agree with your Magnificent 7 commentary almost totally.

    One thing that Microsoft can do if they don't want to go totally cold-turkey into the GPL/FOSS mode. How about unbundling all the media player/viewers, CD burners etc and make just the basic OS open source? They can host all the other "stuff" on MS Live and offer it for reasonable subscription prices.

    As far as I know they could still offer software for sale that would run on the GPL OS without giving up all their IP rights on all the add-on stuff that's been hoisted into the Windows OS. If the GPL won't allow that I'm sure one of Stallman's gang will tell me otherwise.

    If I had one, I'd bet you a nickel Microsoft could whip out a version of MS Office 2010 that would work just fine on Ubuntu, SUSE or Red Hat.
  • Yeah but no but

    While I would love to be able to roll and meetoo all of the above, xwin's comment included, I'm afraid there;s a major problem here. If anyone has ever tried to "Open Source" a piece of pure proprietary code, they will understand what I am saying.

    The binaries that end up being called the OS or the applications are not the product solely of the code the supposed author writes. These days, the majority is library code. So where did the library code come from. Microsoft may well have a head start over other open sourcing projects, but they will still have vast swathes of code in their stuff that they don't full own, so cannot just give away. Remember, a lot of what Bill put out wasn't theirs originally, but was ... erm .. how do I say this politely .. beaten out of .. no, that's a bit pejorative .. how about "Acquired from" small ISVs in return for not being squashed like a bug. They still have rights to that code in some cases. The journey to just finding they have such rights, let alone overcoming the situation, will be monsterous.

    I'm afraid Open Sourcing XP would be a very very large project, they can't just wave a magic wand.

    Nice thought though.
    Andrew Meredith
  • Having it both ways?

    I guess what you're trying to say is that Microsoft is as guilty as all the FOSS programmers they claim have "stolen" or "acquired" Microsoft owned IP that has ended up in Linux?

    Even better irony.

    So instead of having FOSS being the sticky-gum mess Microsoft says it is, we can say that Microsoft is trying to "protect" the unknown and secret hidden IP they "acquired" from its ISVs. hmmm. Yeah right.

    All I can tell you is that every piece of OS code I've seen from Microsoft over the years has their copyright solely on it EXCEPT for IE up through version 6. I'm sure there are other pieces of code with shared copyrights but the bulk of the OS especially the dot Net assemblies and DLLs are exclusively Microsoft's.

    Microsoft has enough cash, it has SourceSafe (or whatever they call it now) and if they can't track down the source of every freaking line of code then they deserve to get sued. Pay-off of the source programmers or IP owners should be possible in a month. Consider how legally compulsive they are about what they perceive as theirs', they should have clear and irrefutable documentation for all of what they own, especially the OS.

    Maybe they ought to have to suffer through a BSA audit like they put their customer's through, that would be "just desserts".
  • Quite possibly

    I have to say that I have only very seldom worked on M$ stuff and even then only superficially, so if as you say, they own the rights to every line of everything, lock, stock and barrel, then what I said is invalid :-)

    My own experience comes mostly from cross platform stuff, mainly in Unix- and Linux-land. Before I was able to move to GPL development, we were forever chasing down distribution restrictions and client licensing requirements and blah blah blah. Nightmare. More than one project came down in a blazing fireball at the eleventh hour because legal found some previously undiscovered obligation that blew the pricing strategy into the weeds.

    Writing for GPL after working on sometimes proprietary most secret stuff was utterly weird, but unbelievably liberating! Really concentrates the mind though, when you realise that not only can your code be closely examined by some really sharp people, but almost certainly will be ;-)
    Andrew Meredith
  • Lots of Open Source Sunshine....

    ...makes for better programmers. I haven't been brave enough to submit anything. My orientation is to program little 8 and 16 bit gizmos anyway.

    I try not to write code since I'm more hardware oriented but I haven't escaped. I had a manager once about 3 years ago that bitched in general one day that "All my engineers are programmers!" It was all I could do to keep my face passive and not laugh right out loud at him. And I thought I was a dinosaur!

    I was expected in XXXX (date redacted to protect the author) in my engineering school to not only learn to program but to design algorithms for specific accuracies. To enforce that, they would give you the answer and then tell you the expected accuracy required. Your code had to generate the accuracy. You had to give them the print-out of your code and that was what you got graded on, not the answer.

    When I went back to school about 10 years ago, they were still teaching programming to engineers. I got a break because they allowed me to use either Fortran or C! This time it didn't require keypunches, thank God!

    Back to the manager, I have thought about that exchange many times. Especially when sitting back down at the computer to write the next 100 to 200 lines of code! I have no idea where he picked up that idea that only programmers write programs and that engineers don't write code.
  • Now there's a refreshing thought...

    Some great idea's there Rupert :)

    Along with making various fixes across the board using XP as a test platform to work with the open source community is a fantastic idea.

    If they are IP problems with some of it's codes then there's a simple solution rip them out, and work with the open source people to fill in the gaps that way it gives both party's something to work together on.

    This platform could then lead on to be truly universal test bed for all other implementations like unified hardware/software drivers and mini application's that the OS uses to maintain itself like uninstaller's, disk management, reg/system cleaner's etc.

    Such a project could then spark a global unified open source AV/Malware protection for all operating systems, and the list goes on and on there's no end to knowledge gained and the advancements made to the industry as a whole.

    Imagine single state applications that a person could download/purchase and then install & run it on any operating system the mind boggles. :D

    As some other's have already stated companies can still make applications to sell that would run on all the operating systems out there, so basically people/companies can get on with making something useful rather than pissing about building un-unified OS's.