Why would Microsoft release early MS-DOS and Word code?

Why would Microsoft release early MS-DOS and Word code?

Summary: The source code for MS-DOS 1.1 and 2.0, as well as Word for Windows 1a, has been made available under strict licensing control. What was Microsoft thinking?


Although I wasn't in the room when the executives of Microsoft decided to release, under strict control, I think it would be interesting to consider why the company would have made this move and why it made it now. The release was done in conjunction with the Computer History Museum.

Is MS-DOS 1.1/2.0 and Word for Windows 1a open source now?

Although some in the industry are hailing this move as making MS-DOS 1.1 and 2.0, as well as Word for Windows 1a, open source, this really isn't the case. Microsoft has released the code for these ancient products under a license, which allows access to the code "solely for non-commercial research, experimentation, and educational purposes." It forbids redistribution and restricts the use of the code so that it can't be used in another program. It even goes so far as to say that only 50 lines of code can be cited in other works. That's not all that open.

Open source licenses make it possible for individuals to copy the code, make modifications to the code, and distribute the results. Each of the many open source licenses control those three functions differently.

Why now?

I believe that there are a number of reasons Microsoft has made this move, including:

  • The folks at the Computer History Museum convinced Microsoft that the code is an important part of the history of the Information Technology market and should be preserved. MS-DOS and Word for Windows will take their place beside Apple II DOS, IBM APL, Apple MacPaint and QuickDraw, and Adobe Photoshop in the museum's archives.
  • Microsoft wants be seen as an open company even though it tightly holds on to its intellectual property. This move appears to be working. Just look at how many in the industry spoke about this move as Microsoft "open sourcing" MS-DOS and Word for Windows.
  • Microsoft fears that it will lose the next generation of developers to open source platforms such as Linux and Android. Academic institutions, under pressure to reduce their own costs, have put a great deal of attention on using these open source products as the basis of their Computer Science curricula.

Will this move have the impact Microsoft wants?

Microsoft's client-oriented software model is under attack in the market. Smartphones, tablets, and other client devices are stealing Microsoft's thunder. It's doing its best to change how the company and its products are being seen in the hopes that this will sway consumers away from Smartphones and Tablets that are based upon Linux or UNIX operating systems.

The company is being forced to acknowledge that customers are using third-party devices and software. You can see this from  Microsoft's recent release of a form of Microsoft Office for iPads.

From a messaging standpoint, it appears that this move has had some initial success. Much of the media believes that Microsoft has "open sourced" MS-DOS and Word for Windows even though that's not really the case. We'll have to wait for more time to pass to see if this move has really made a difference.

From a longer term standpoint, it's not likely to make much of a difference to academic institutions who are looking for ways to reduce their costs. Open source Linux and UNIX operating systems are more modern and are used in far more places than a 1980s operating system and personal productivity tool. More and more companies that could employ students coming from these institutions want Linux and UNIX expertise. All in all, this move is unlikely to make a difference in what these institutions are teaching.

Topic: Operating Systems


Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. In his spare time, he's also the managing partner of Lux Sonus LLC, an investment firm.

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  • Overthinking

    I suspect you are overthinking this a lot Dan. I suspect Microsoft decided to contribute the code to these old programs so the museum's collection would include programs that people actually used in great numbers.
    • It is wise to consider the reasons behind moves made by major suppliers

      Cantbeme, thanks for your response. I've learned that most major suppliers have many reasons for public moves. I thought it wise to consider some of the possible reasons for this move.

      Dan K
  • Ouch!

    This is where I started - now I feel old :(
  • I don't see this as related to anything other than your museum scenario

    I don't think the move is meant to play as any kind of an open source deal, or even to be seen as one.

    This is basically the equivalent of giving the Kittyhawk to the Smithsonian.
    • Definitely

      They really really are not softening on open-source!

      It makes sense. Apple machines are in all these museums and the story of the young duo is synonymous with the foundation of computing.

      If they don't take these steps to tell their story they risk being one of the few examples of the victors not writing the history!
      • "They really really are not softening on open-source!"

        Your statement is not true.

        Microsoft has now fully open-sourced several important technologies/products over the last 3-4 years including:
        * F#
        * ASP.NET
        * TypeScript
        * Linux Drivers for Hyper-V
        * WebEssentials
        * Kudu
        * Azure command line tools for PowerShell and x-platform
        * SignalR

        Microsoft is also incorporating several open-source products into its own work rather than building its own flavor/equivalent of, including:
        * JSON.net
        * JQuery, Modernizr, LESS, etc.

        Microsoft has also committed considerable amounts of code and/or support to:
        * node.js (via libuv)
        * REDIS
        * Apache, PHP & Ruby
        * Hadoop
        * etc.
  • Will this move have the impact Microsoft wants?

    Not if they are thinking this will help with the next generation of developers due the the restrictions on the code (no really open source). Developers want open source code so they can create something useful in the marketplace.