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Give Windows NT to open source movement

Thousands of developers would love the opportunity to turn Windows NT into a masterpiece. So why not release the source code into the open-source community?

commentary On 30 June, 2003, Microsoft withdrew support for Windows New Technology (NT).

Windows NT users no longer have the right to download updates to Internet Explorer and will not get a patch when new security vulnerabilities are discovered in this version of Microsoft's operating system.

Very few companies are still using NT on critical systems, so the withdrawal of support is unlikely generate any real anger or resentment. However, now that NT has been retired, what is Microsoft going to do with the ageing operating system's source code? There will not be any new applications created for it, and it's difficult to display software in a museum or gallery. So after spending so many billions on development, what will happen? I can't imagine the code will be simply deleted.

There are obvious commercial reasons for keeping its current source code--for Windows XP, Server 2003 and others--a closely guarded secret.

However much the software giant would like us to forget that NT ever existed--and push everyone into a Windows Server 2003 upgrade--there are thousands of developers out there who would love to have the opportunity to turn the ageing OS into a masterpiece. So why not let them have a go by releasing NT 4.0's source code into the open-source community?

There are obvious commercial reasons for keeping its current source code--for Windows XP, Server 2003 and others--a closely guarded secret. After all, if you owned something that was making billions of pounds a year, you'd want to protect it too. But who knows where the market is going to be in another two years?

Linux has been nibbling away at the Windows userbase for a number of years, but it has made an enormous impact this year. So far in 2003, Microsoft has lost a number of high-profile government contracts to the open-source operating system. This trend looks set to continue, and we may one day look back and recognise this time as the beginning of the end of Microsoft's monopoly over the desktop.

As Linux continues to penetrate the desktop space, Microsoft could open new revenue streams by providing support for subscribers to its open-source NT. Although companies are slowly moving their desktops to Linux, an open-source version of Windows, with Microsoft providing support, might be something they would wait for. In many ways, it could derail the Linux express train before it reaches full speed.

How much NT code in today's Windows?
It has been suggested that Microsoft ought to produce its own version of Linux, but that would mean the company admitting Linux is better than Windows. By moving its old technology into the open-source space, it is conceivable that Microsoft could, eventually, dominate the open-source desktop space. Although it would no longer command monopolistic powers, it would remain a significant player.

By moving its old technology into the open-source space, it is conceivable that Microsoft could, eventually, dominate the open-source desktop space.

Microsoft is already its own biggest competitor. By publishing the source code for NT, it would continue this trend, but at the same time, open the Windows brand into areas it would otherwise never reach. An obvious argument for it not releasing the source code is that too much of it has been carried over to its latest batch of products. But if that is the case, then what about all the "major revisions" we keep hearing about each time Windows is updated? Surely there cannot be even a small amount of NT 4.0 code in the latest version of Windows, can there?

The developer community regularly moans about the inefficiencies of 'Micro$oft bloatware' and Microsoft has no love for the open-source community. But for the first time, Windows--albeit a very old version--would receive some constructive feedback as the code is scrutinised by people that have not been assimilated into the Redmond collective.

Over the past seven years, Microsoft's New Technology has been launched, patched, updated, replaced and discontinued. Surely now is a good time to let the code go back to where it came from--the developers.

Munir Kotadia writes for ZDNet U.K..