Microsoft shared source update 'a devil's agreement'

But is it better the devil you know?
Written by Joe Wilcox, Contributor

But is it better the devil you know?

A new programme from Microsoft which allows makers of Windows CE devices, such as mobile phones and handheld computers, to make more changes to the software has been branded a 'devil's agreement' by analysts. As part of its "shared source" effort to deal with the threat of open-source software, Microsoft plans to let device makers modify more of the source code of its specialised Windows CE operating system. But some say the company's licensing terms could kill interest in the plan. But analysts placed less significance on the changes than Microsoft. Paul DeGroot, from market researcher Directions on Microsoft, said: "Manufacturers already had access to the source code and could modify it. There's absolutely nothing new about that." But Scott Horn, marketing director for Microsoft's embedded device division, disagreed, saying that under an earlier programme the source code available to embedded developers and manufacturers "was not all of Windows CE". The newer programme "enables our partners pretty much all the source code we can provide to them". The programme is another attempt by Microsoft to make one of its operating systems more competitive with open-source software such as Linux. This approach has appealed to companies looking for more control over their own software development, or the ability to quickly make modifications instead of waiting for a commercial developer such as Microsoft to release a new version of the software. Microsoft's response is its shared-source programme, which gives developers, governments and educational institutions access to Windows XP and Windows CE source code. The company has a total of 12 shared source programmes, said Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief technical officer for Advanced Strategies and Policy. When the manufacturer makes changes for differentiating products, it has a six-month period to exclusively market devices with versions of Windows CE exhibiting these changes. After the period ends, Microsoft gains a royalty-free licence to the technology, which allows any other developer to use them. IDC analyst Roger Kay said: "That's unbelievable. That's patently unfair. It's as if the manufacturers were doing work for hire for Microsoft and they didn't get paid." By contrast, the rights to what Microsoft calls "platform modifications" get transferred to the company. Typically, platform modifications are things such as bug fixes or code optimisations, Horn said. DeGroot faulted both sets of terms. "This highlights Microsoft's problem with shared source," he said. As the world's leading commercial software company, Microsoft should set a better example. "They should either pay a licensing royalty or pay them for their development work," he said. Whether a source code change is a company improvement or a platform modification is subject to negotiation. The developer gets to make the original designation. Even though Microsoft may disagree, the ultimate characterisation of any changes is agreed to by both sides before the change is incorporated. But IDC's Kay questioned how much power many smaller developers would have determining the type of modification. "It's like the devil's agreement," he said.
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