Open is the new closed

Making software open and available has its risks as Microsoft discovered in Malaysia this week but it's a necessary strategy given increased competition from open source platforms and regulatory pressure.

The news this week that pirated copes of Longhorn are doing the rounds in market stalls in Malaysia was pretty surprising in itself given the next incarnation of Windows isn't actually due to ship till 2006. More surprising still, however, are the comments Microsoft gave out on the back of the story -- warning consumers that the pirated code "is not a ready product", and that it would be "very risky" to load the software on a machine.

Talk about stating the obvious. Given the amount of bugs in the average piece of Microsoft gold code, warning consumers that a pre-alpha product might be "risky" is like the UK Foreign office telling tourists that package tours to Tikrit might be "risky".

This is not the first time a Microsoft product has found itself onto the Asian black market before its official release. Pirated copies of Windows XP were already doing the rounds in Malaysia in September 2001 even though the product wasn't actually due to officially hit Asian stores until the end of October the same year. One industry watcher at the time claimed piracy will always be tough to stop in Malaysia because "the root of the problem is and always will be corruption."

The Malaysian government has gone some way to trying to curb the rampant piracy that affects not only software but CDs and other consumables by imposing its own price controls in an effort to price the pirates out of business. In June this year, Malaysian authorities claimed they would have to take "drastic measures" to curb illegal copies as the software and recording industries had been taking "their own sweet time" to act. The plan is to place software and CDs under the same price controls that govern essential products such as rice and sugar, as the authorities feel that the pricesd charge for DVDs and CDs are forcing buyers to opt for cheaper pirated substitutes.

This predictably has not gone down well with Microsoft, and its friends at the anti-piracy group the Business Software Alliance, who claim that trying to compete with the pirates on price is never going to work. "It is by changing mindsets that we achieve the most lasting change. People have to understand that morally and ethically it is wrong to use pirated software," said the Ajay Advani, chair of BSA Malaysia.

 

It's all well and good to talk about ethics, but if companies and businesses can get away with it -- they will. Things are made more problematic given Microsoft's refusal to back down on its global one-price policy, which sees it charge the same amount for software regardless of the market. Asian authorities claim the pricing model is unfair and say that it should be tied to local economic conditions.

To force the issue, several Asian governments have begun to investigate open source, either because of a genuine interest in cheaper alternatives or in an effort to force Microsoft to capitulate. Japan, China and South Korea announced a deal in September to jointly research and develop non-Windows, open-source operating systems. The Japanese government has already reserved 1bn yen (£5.5m) for the project, and plans to support an open-source software forum to be established by major Japanese electronic firms such as Hitachi, Matsushita, NEC and Fujitsu.

There are a lot of factors at work here but one of the major issues aside from the price of Microsoft products seems to be security and wariness on the part of Asian governments of giving what they see as monopolistic control of crucial software to foreign corporations. Microsoft has gone some way to alleviate these fears with its Government Security Program (GSP) which gives some countries -- including China -- access to key parts of Microsoft's source code.

The GSP, and another programme called the Shared Source Initiative which operates along similar lines but includes companies as well as governments, can be viewed as necessary to alleviate security fears among foreign powers or a natural reaction to increasing competition from open source. Whether government's really intend to go ahead with open source deployments or are simply using them as a stick to beat Microsoft with is unclear but either way it is having an effect.

The latest move by Microsoft to be seen as open, fluffy and approachable came this week with the announcement that it plans to license more of its intellectual property to other companies beginning with its FAT file system and ClearType fonts. Microsoft has dressed this up as not a commercial decision but all about "working better and promoting better collaboration with the industry". But analyst claim that regulatory pressures, especially from European authorities, probably also played a part.

While openness with developers might have ended with an own goal for Microsoft with the Malaysian Longhorn incident, the boys at Redmond realise that the days of being closed and aloof are over. Open-source ideals have begun to alter the proprietary playing field of the IT industry and when it comes to choosing a vendor, transparency and approachability have become perquisites for governments and businesses.