Microsoft's magnificent 7 open source options

commentary Joining the open source club has many benefits. How many Microsoft receives depends on how far it wants to go.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

commentary 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.

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 license 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 legitimize 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.

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