Windows For Sale?

What would it mean to the industry if Microsoft Corp. is required to "auction off" its Windows source code -- as 19 state attorney generals are expected to propose as they enter settlement discussions with Microsoft and the Department of Justice this week?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

What would it mean to the industry if Microsoft Corp. is required to "auction off" its Windows source code -- as 19 state attorney generals are expected to propose as they enter settlement discussions with Microsoft and the Department of Justice this week?

It all depends on what is meant by auctioning, say industry participants, who began debating the merits of the idea across discussion forums almost as soon as The Seattle Times reported on Sunday the existence of the states' plan called "Remedies Re: Microsoft Litigation." Representatives from the state attorneys general suing Microsoft, the DoJ and Microsoft are scheduled to meet Tuesday in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to commence bashing out a settlement before the trial resumes in late April or early May. Microsoft has already hinted it is willing to make concessions in some of its OEM, ISP and Internet Content Provider contract provisions. But at least so far, Microsoft has not come forward with an offer for a more liberal Windows licensing model.

Some industry players are interpreting the auction proposal suggested by the state attorneys general as a requirement that Microsoft sell the rights to Windows to one or more software providers so that there would be multiple sources from which OEMs, software vendors and customers could license or buy Windows. Such an idea builds on a remedy suggested informally by some at the start of the DoJ vs. Microsoft antitrust trial, via which different Microsoft product divisions would be authorised to license Windows, thereby creating competition within Microsoft's own walls.

But other industry watchers note that the auctioning idea put forth by the states is only a precursor to a more radical plan, one which could result in Microsoft morphing into an open-source software vendor. The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) in a recent white paper suggested as a possible remedy that Microsoft be required to recast itself as an open source vendor. Via this model, the one under which Linux vendors communally enhance their multiple Linux distributions, Microsoft and other Windows licensees would work together to enhance and maintain Windows. The state attorneys general suggest the open source remedy as an alternative to Windows auctioning in their white paper, according to The Seattle Times story.

If Microsoft were to adhere to the open-source model, one potential worry, the potential for the creation incompatible Windows distributions, would be lessened. If Microsoft, instead, merely licenses Windows to one or more entities--with no further involvement in terms of enhancing the product while keeping multiple versions of the source base in step -- the result would almost certainly be proliferation of multiple, incompatible Windows releases. Microsoft's version of Windows would likely be the most up-to-date and end up as the release preferred by most licensees and/or purchasers by default.

Currently, Microsoft is the sole licensor of Windows source code, a limitation which was mentioned by at least one OEM during the DOJ vs. Microsoft case. Hewlett-Packard Co. executive John Romano, who told Microsoft officials in an email message that, "If we [HP] had a choice of another supplier, based on your actions in this area, I can assure you that you would not be our supplier of choice."

Microsoft steadfastly has denied that it uses Windows licensing as a club. In fact, company officials characterise its source-code licensing policies as fairly liberal, with top brass from CEO Bill Gates on down hinting that the company is contemplating when and if it should open up elements of its Windows and NT source code.

In a recent interview, group product manager Ed Muth noted that Microsoft has source-code licensing agreements in place with more than 50 laboratories and computer-science schools around the world. Muth said that Microsoft's source-code licensing policies are similar to the community source licensing terms recently announced by Sun Microsystems Inc, meaning these licensees are not authorised to sell Microsoft's source code or derivative works based on its source code.

But companies who have been on the other side of the Windows license say that Microsoft is becoming increasingly restrictive in licensing Windows. Two lawsuits within the past year -- Bristol Technology Inc. vs. Microsoft and AT&T vs. Microsoft both revolved around Microsoft's allegedly restrictive source-code licensing policies.

Some industry players say the operating systems playing field could be levelled if Microsoft simply licensed or published all of its Win32 application programming interfaces (APIs), rather than Windows in its entirety. Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman recently proposed Microsoft be required to publish all of its Windows protocols, file formats and interfaces.

Microsoft, for its part, maintains its Windows interfaces already are open and publicly available. As various developers have demonstrated in recent years, however, that not all of the Windows APIs currently are documented. The state attorneys general suggest Microsoft be obligated to make full source code disclosures as part of settlement concessions, as well, according to The Seattle Times' report.

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