For the first time, Microsoft will let its hardware partners modify virtually all the source code for one of its Windows versions and ship the resulting specialized products to customers. However, the Windows version in question is Windows CE .NET (formerly code-named Talisker), which is aimed at embedded and portable markets, not Windows Server or Windows XP, which target the desktop, notebook, and server computing markets. The changes to CE .NET licensing follow a successful 2 years of the Shared Source program, which lets academic researchers, partners, and governments view and occasionally modify the product's source code. Microsoft has now opened up the program to commercial companies such as chip makers and device manufacturers and isn't charging its partners any additional fees for making modifications. However, partners that change the CE .NET source code won't be paid for their work.
"This is a very exciting milestone," Scott Horn, director of marketing for the Embedded Systems Group at Microsoft, told me during a briefing yesterday. "Based on feedback from our partners, we've agreed to extend the Shared Source program to commercial scenarios. Our partners wanted to access the Windows CE source code, make modifications or derivatives, and ship products and devices based on their modifications. This is a first for a Microsoft operating system platform."
Under the new licensing terms, CE .NET licensees will be able to change the product's source code but must give the changes to Microsoft and its other partners, although the partner can specify that the changes not be used by those parties or Microsoft for 6 months. In some cases, immediately providing these changes to the wider partner base makes sense. ARM, for example, has already provided significant feedback to Microsoft, and the resulting changes have helped CE .NET run 25 to 30 percent faster on the ARM hardware platform. Other companies might choose to take advantage of the 6-month moratorium because the changes are product-specific or because the companies want a competitive advantage for the allowed period. Hitachi, for example, is already shipping a new handheld computer in the Japanese market that takes advantage of changes that company made to the CE .NET source code.
Although opening the CE .NET source code is indeed momentous for a proprietary software company such as Microsoft, critics charge that the company is still taking baby steps into the established world of open-source software (OSS) in a bid to counter the effects of Linux and other popular open-source projects, whose inner workings are completely open to the public. Also, the company appears to be getting free help with performance tuning, debugging, and adding new features to its OS. In the end, however, these improvements will benefit everyone who uses the CE .NET platform, including end users. Although critics can argue the relative merits of various source-code-sharing schemes, Microsoft is a commercial venture interested in protecting its intellectual property and advancing the platform. For partners that use CE .NET--an ever-growing market--this move looks like an interesting opportunity.