Despite reports suggesting that Microsoft may be considering releasing the source code for Windows 2000, a Microsoft executive responsible for the new operating system said he would be "surprised" if the company diverted from its strategy of retaining sole authorship of its software.
"We have been able to avoid the fractionalisation of the Windows NT marketplace by bringing the work that people do back into a well-controlled source tree and making sure it gets subjected to the same quality control," said Ed Muth, Microsoft's group manager for Windows 2000.
Microsoft has been able to avoid the fragmentation that has occurred in the Unix marketplace as software and hardware developers push "different variants" of the Unix operating system (OS), for instance, Muth added, because the company has remained the sole arbiter of what constitutes the Windows platform. "That's why you can buy a piece of shrink-wrapped software, and that's why the software runs. . . . I would be surprised if we diverted from that strategy, given that that's what our customers tell us that's what they want," he said.
Muth said comments Microsoft President Steve Ballmer and other company executives made at a gathering of hardware executives in Los Angeles earlier this week were interpreted without having a clear understanding of how Microsoft defines "open source." Microsoft executives were quoted as saying the company is "seriously considering" publishing the NT source code - opening speculation that Microsoft might allow developers and programmers outside the company to work on, help improve and possible extend and modify its technology. Such a scenario is reportedly being discussed by government lawyers as a possible remedy should they win their antitrust case against the company.
And today a statement from "members of the Open Source Community" applauded Microsoft for considering opening up some of the code for its operating system. The statement, signed by the president of the Open Source Initiative, among others, reminded Microsoft that open source code "open source is not magic pixie dust" and that "that empty demonstrations and half-measures won't do."
But Muth said the term "open source" has a variety of meanings, and the company's definition differs from the one used to describe Unix and the increasingly popular Linux - in which a worldwide community of developers are able to freely extend, modify and commercialise versions of the software. "As a customer-service-driven organisation, we're interested in any trend in the news. Open source is one of those trends. Like other software companies, we're monitoring those trends and are alert to seeking ways in which part of this idea might be of value to our customers," Muth said. "But we have absolutely no initiatives in this space to announce."
That said, Microsoft says it has, for the past five years, been licensing some or all of the underlying programming, or source, code to its Windows NT OS, as well as to its other software applications.
But its definition of "open source code licenses" means making the technology available to only a select group of computer scientists, researchers and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and engineering partners, who are offered the code under a set of restrictions that prohibit them from commercialising the technology in any way, Muth said. "They do not receive any intellectual property rights or rights to derivative works."
Instead, the more than 50 licenses it has with universities and government labs -- including the Sandia National Laboratories and the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications -- have enabled researchers working on "cutting-edge computer science" to base their work on Windows NT. Microsoft benefits, Muth said, from the "colleague-to-colleague" interaction with researchers, particularly those working on security, high-performance computing and other projects that could help Microsoft customers. Sandia, for instance, has built a supercomputer using Compaq Computer hardware and Windows NT.
OEM and engineering partners also contribute ideas for improving the OS - and sometimes they kick back code to the company, Muth added. But all third-party code is reviewed by Microsoft and put through the company's internal quality control process before Microsoft engineers incorporate it into Windows NT. The same will hold true for its successor, Windows 2000. As to commercial developers, Microsoft said it already makes limited parts of its OS source code, such as the code enabling it to build device drivers for the OS.
"I think the detail we give is significantly higher than our competitors, particularly for Windows 2000," Muth said. But speculation that Microsoft might take an approach to open source similar to the one that has been used to popularise Linux or by browser rival Netscape Communications, which makes its browser code freely available while also seeking input for a branded browser it plans to introduce later this year, remains just that.
"There are many definitions of open source, and it would be incorrect to assume that any one of those definitions would turn out to be the model we might follow," Muth said. "Microsoft is paying attention to the market and is looking at ways that would be consistent with things we do today to help our customers."
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