Inventing the news: Will Microsoft go open source?

You gotta love the news. The mainstream press invariably has something important (or at least controversial) to discuss, such as the present tragedy in Kosovo or the Monica Lewinski crisis. Here in the computer press, however, things are generally a little tamer. We had the Microsoft trial for a few months, but even that got old pretty quick. But recently, the computing press has latched on to what could be an amazing story: That Microsoft will go "open source" with Windows. In other words, Microsoft will supposedly release all or part of the source code for Windows so that programmers can work with it in the comfort of their own homes.

Please.

Currently, you can buy the Windows source code. Surprised? Don't be: Industry heavyweights such as Compaq and Hewlett Packard as well as far smaller companies pay over $1 million for the right to view, modify, and basically play around with the magic DNA of Windows 2000.

But the idea of Microsoft opening up even small parts of the critical portions of Windows source code is ludicrous. That'd be like, well, Apple Computer opening up the key parts of its Macintosh source code (and don't say they've done that, they haven't: None of the proprietary Apple extensions to the Mach kernel or BSD UNIX are part of that Darwin source code project and you cannot use that code to "build" your own OS. They key phrase here is "marketing stunt.").

Actually "marketing stunt" is an interesting term. A lot of the computing press has latched onto that as well: Maybe this open source movement from Microsoft is, in fact, a marketing stunt, designed at getting the DOJ off its back. It's an interesting scenario.

If only it were true.

No, this falls solely under the category of made up news. Of hearing what you want to hear, so that you can print a juicy story. You see, Microsoft has never spoken about "open source" in more than the most general of terms. In fact, on Thursday, Ed Muth, a Windows 2000 product manager, sought to quell the rumors that his company would someday release the source code to Windows.

"We have been able to avoid the fractionalization of the Windows NT marketplace by bringing the work that people do back into a well-controlled source tree and making sure it gets subjected to the same quality control," Muth told [email protected] Week. "That's why you can buy a piece of shrink-wrapped software, and that's why the software runs. Our customers tell us that's what they want."

On Wednesday, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer told attendees at his WinHEC keynote address that Microsoft was looking at the open source option. But what did he really say? Was he really preluding a future where Windows was open source? Let's take a look.

"I don't think the great attraction to Linux is the fact that it's free... The key thing I think that we're trying to really understand and decide what to do about is this notion of open source," Ballmer said this week. "There is a level of flexibility, or at least a level of comfort that people have when they have the source code just in case. Most CIOs I talk to don't actually want their people to touch the source. They don't want to introduce new variations, new perturbations, new confusion."

So Ballmer's really saying that Linux is nothing more than another UNIX, in more ways that one: It's a fragmented market with various incompatible versions, even on the same hardware (and don't write to refute this; you can't install Red Hat packages on most other versions of Linux; that's just the start). And Ballmer's comments came only at the end of his speech, during a question-and-answer session. He never spoke about "open source" during his entire presentation.

But wait, there's a little more.

"Most hardware manufacturers I talk to don't really want a lot of additional software engineering costs in the price of creating a new device," he continued. "But, there's a comfort level there, and we're, of course, thinking with great interest about that. We're really studying and talking to customers about their reaction to this source code availability, and as we figure out what that means for us, we'll certainly let people know."

In other words: Microsoft is looking to provide its customers (Compaq, Hewlett Packard, etc.) with the Windows source code for free (remember, they're currently charged for this right) so that they more easily develop device drivers and software for the system. It's about ease of development, not embracing the open source movement. And those two quotes above are literally just about all he had to say about the subject.

And more importantly, Ballmer's comments about this were designed to deflect a question about Linux and open source. He wasn't announcing or proposing that his company was working on open source at all.

So why all the press? Why the headlines screaming "Microsoft to embrace open source"? And why all the follow-up stories with an editorial about the "Microsoft open source marketing stunt"? I honestly don't know. But I'll tell you this: Windows is the crown jewels. And Microsoft isn't going to give that up without some serious kicking and screaming.

"As a customer service driven organization, we're interested in any trend in the news," Muth says. "Open source is one of those trends. Like other software companies, we're monitoring those trends and are alert to seeking ways in which part of this idea might be of value to our customers. But we have absolutely no initiatives in this space to announce.

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