Microsoft embraces open source -- with reservations

Company official stresses Windows business interests

SAN FRANCISCO -- Microsoft recognizes the benefits of open source but is not prepared to turn over its crown-jewel Windows operating system to the paradigm, according to a Microsoft official speaking at the Open Source Business Conference here on Wednesday.

Instead, Microsoft provides access to source code on a limited basis, said the official, Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative.

Microsoft with its Shared Source program is doing things it has not done in the past, he said. “We’re not open-sourcing all Microsoft technologies. We’ll be strategic in how we share that,” he said.

Windows source will be provided under a “reference grant,” not an open source license. Code can be looked at but not modified. Microsoft has a business interest around the sale of Windows and “the integrity of the OS is critical,” Matusow said. Very few developers actually want to modify source code anyway, according to Matusow, who cited a survey.

Educational and research users, however, may modify Windows source code they have through a research grant. Microsoft does allow companies such as Intel and Hitachi to make changes to source code for the Windows CE platform and distribute them, he said.

Commercial companies involved in open source have protected their own interests, such as IBM with its Eclipse tools initiative, Matusow said.

 “IBM has very strategic goals,” with Eclipse. “It’s a WebSphere development tool. It encourages people to bring applications into the WebSphere environment. It generates revenues for [IBM],” said Matusow. But IBM has not made technologies such as DB2, Tivoli, and Lotus Notes available under open source, since these products are major revenue-generators, Matusow stressed.

Even Red Hat will not let users modify its Linux source code if they have a support contract, Matusow said.  Intellectual property is as important in open source providers as it is to commercial providers, Matusow stressed.

Open source has been around a long time and provides competition that is good for quality and drives down prices, Matusow said. Microsoft also commends the community participation spawned by open source, but has had its own share of communities, Matusow. Open source is a good way to engage community, “but it’s not the only way,” he said.

He continued complimenting the use of non-commercial software. “Non-commercial software has played a critical role in the software ecosystem and it will continue. There’s no question about it,” Matusow said.

Asked about the Mono project, which is an implementation of the C# CLI (Common Language Infrastructure) standard on Linux, Matusow said Microsoft is flattered but views it as a competing implementation.

Earlier this week, Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Jim Gray questioned the future viability of the commercial software industry if users can get software for free through open source. He made the comments at another conference, the Software Development Conference & Expo West 2004 show, in Santa Clara, Calif. 

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.