Sharing...the Microsoft way

Thanks to Microsoft's Craig Mundie, there's now a genuine debate over the value of open source software. It's almost coming off like a series of sponsored events. May the best code win.

COMMENTARY--So there's now a genuine debate over the value of open source software. It's almost coming off like a series of sponsored events.

In early May, Microsoft senior vice president Craig Mundie fires the first shot, at New York's Stern School of Business. Then, a week or so ago, Free Software Foundation President Richard Stallman fires back, also at the Stern School. Now, publisher Tim O'Reilly plans to bring both sides together in a formal, live debate at his Open Source Convention in San Diego in late July.

But let's make no mistake here. This may be a debate spawned by the notion that a free operating system can compete effectively with a for-a-fee OS. This may bring into focus whether the efforts of a world of programmers contributing their time to debug and improve an OS that is given away can compete with an army of paid programmers working for a private enterprise which must generate a profit--and, to date, has generated profits at a rate that almost would seem obscene (38 cents on the dollar after taxes), if it weren't legal.

But it's not a debate about whether Microsoft will adopt the principles of the open source movement and share the source code of its OS, Windows.

Ain't happening. Ain't gonna happen.

What Mundie announced and described at Stern was a "shared source" philosophy. And even the use of the word "shared" has to be clearly understood.

Microsoft has committed itself to sharing access to its source code, with carefully chosen partners. It is not allowing those partners to go in, except in very rare instances, and change that source code. Outsiders are not being allowed to debug and improve Microsoft code. Microsoft will do that.

Rather, Microsoft is letting partners see the millions of lines of code in Windows, so that those partners can better debug and improve their own software. It's a philosophy designed to make other companies' software run better on Windows, not to make Windows run better.

That could still be a byproduct, because Microsoft has long had its own "community" of developers, hundreds of thousands of programmers whose livelihood has depended on building applications, utilities and other programs that leverage Windows. Those developers are encouraged to give Microsoft feedback. Microsoft then makes the changes it finds worthy, and the improvements get added to new releases of Windows.

If there is intellectual property in the "suggestions" made to Microsoft, the value is reflected in the next release--but the property belongs to Microsoft.

This is sharing, Microsoft-style. Not a big surprise.

Over the past decade and a half, Microsoft says it has shared access to its Windows source code with no more than two dozen outside software developers. The most notable is Citrix Systems, whose business it is to create software that allows old computers and "non-Windows" machines to run Windows programs. But even Citrix, four years ago, seemingly came within an eyelash of having Microsoft try to replicate its technology.

Microsoft says it intends to be more forthcoming in sharing its code with outsiders. You might see, for instance, the emergence of a "code center," with sample code being distributed online to Microsoft developers. And, in the case of the smaller version of Windows known as CE, portable device makers may get some leeway in actually shaping the OS to their needs.

So, maybe this isn't really open and it's not really sharing. But there is sound economic logic in it. If you're a large corporation running critical aspects of your business electronically, you want reliability, above all else. And, if something goes wrong, you want to be sure you know who to call. With the Microsoft model, there's little question of who's holding the bag, because Microsoft has made a point of keeping the rights to its code in-house.

If free software proponents find a way to match that reliability, fine. If the availability of a free enterprise-grade OS forces Microsoft to add more and more value to Windows in order to keep people paying for it, fine.

May the best code win. Shared or not.