For 20 years, the source code to Microsoft's Windows operating system has been a closely held secret. Prying eyes could lead to rogue Windows distributions, application incompatibilities, unauthorized use in other products--and better-informed competitors. Things changed last week as Microsoft, under pressure from the European Commission, disclosed plans to let competitors get their hands on a chunk of Windows and view it line by line. It's a surprising reversal to Bill Gates' long-standing guard-the-code strategy. It's also an offer that many in the industry--and perhaps the EC regulators it's meant to please--will find easy to refuse.
Microsoft lawyer Brad Smith (left) lunches with former European Parliament President Pat Cox (right) and Friends of Europe Secretary General Giles Merritt, before dropping a surprise on EC regulators.
Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith described the decision as a "bold stroke" to satisfy the European Commission's demand that Microsoft make it easier for rivals to build products that incorporate the Windows server communications protocols, since it would show them how Microsoft itself did it. That's been one of the sticking points in the commission's long-running antitrust case against Microsoft. The company has issued 12,000 pages of specs so far in trying to satisfy the EC--drawing yawns from other tech companies and a formal statement of objection from the EC last month that put the onus on Microsoft to do more.
So Microsoft coughed up its code. "If you want to understand these communications protocols, the source code is the ultimate documentation," Smith said at a press conference in Brussels. "It is the DNA of the Windows server operating system."
But Microsoft's move isn't as bold as the company makes it out to be. Microsoft isn't opening up the entire Windows operating system, only the part that contains certain communications protocols. Companies that want to participate must pay for the privilege. And there are strings attached--a license that lets them view the code but not copy it. "We're not open-sourcing Windows," Smith noted.
Microsoft's restrictive "reference license" is designed for technology companies, not individual developers, so don't expect dozens of innovative products to spring from legions of Windows aficionados.