Windows goes open source? Microsoft plays coy

A Microsoft official says it’s a possibility, as far-fetched as that might seem now

Could Microsoft's open source advocacy ever result in the company offering its cash cow Windows OS up to open source? It's possible, according to one Microsoft official, though his comments Wednesday should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.

During a technology panel session in Silicon Valley, Microsoft's Mark Russinovich, CTO for the company's Azure cloud platform, did what Microsoft officials have been prone to doing in recent years: Preach Microsoft's conversion from open source skeptic to proponent. Open source, Russinovich said at the Chef Conf 2015 conference, was "no longer taboo" at the commercial software giant, pointing to Microsoft's accommodations for open source, such as having Linux account for roughly 20 percent of virtual machines deployed on Azure.

The company also recently open-sourced its .Net CoreCLR, as opting for open source can entice developers to use Microsoft technologies, Russinovich explained. "For something like .Net, we believe that that is an enabling technology that really can get people started on other Microsoft solutions."

Panel moderator Cade Metz, business editor at Wired, asked Russinovich if Windows itself might eventually be made open source, which elicited loud applause from the audience. "It's definitely possible," Russinovich responded. "Like I said, it's a new Microsoft." The company is having every conversation that could be imagined about what to do with its software and services, he said.

Russinovich described Microsoft's open source epiphany as a learning experience. "Microsoft didn't have a long tradition in open source, and so this transformation is a lot of learning." The company has embraced open source projects like Apache Hadoop, but there could be challenges to open source at times, such as offering something via open source that comes with a build system that requires "rocket scientists and three months to set up," he said.

The notion of Microsoft ever open-sourcing its commercially licensed Windows OS has been broached before, to no avail. Of course, it's easy for a company official to acknowledge the possibility during a technology conference filled with developers who would love to see Microsoft go this route. But actually doing it is likely another story. Surely, the company would part with a considerable amount of licensing revenue, but it has other ways of earning money besides selling Windows, including selling Azure services. The company has even earned billions of dollars via patents used in the rival Google Android mobile platform, published reports say.

While Microsoft has contributed more than 1,000 repositories worth of software to open source code hub GitHub, including ASP.Net, it remains to be seen whether the company ever actually takes the bold step of open-sourcing Windows itself.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.