Operating Systems

Could Windows go open source? A top Microsoft engineer says 'definitely possible'

"It's a new Microsoft," engineer and Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich tells attendees at an open-source conference. Still, an open-source Windows shouldn't be expected anytime soon.

Windows 10 is closed for now, but an open-source version apparently isn't out of the question. Screenshot by CNET

The impossible is actually possible at Microsoft, one of the company's engineers claims.

Speaking at the open-source-focused ChefCon this week, Microsoft engineer and Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich said something unheard of: "it's definitely possible" that Windows could eventually go open source.

"It's a new Microsoft," Russinovich said, according to Wired, which was in attendance at the event.

In the world of operating systems, there are two main types: closed source and open source. Closed operating systems include Windows and Apple's OS X and they're categorized as such because the code that's used to drive the software is not made available to the public. Open source, on other hand, means the technology community has access to all the underlying code that drives a piece of software, allowing coders to tinker with it, modify it and ultimately create unique distributions of the operating system. The chief open-source OS on the desktop side is Linux.

The debate over open-source applications has been a long and heated one. Those who support the open-source community argue that by allowing code to be available to users, the prevailing wisdom of those who access the code will create a stronger, more-appealing platform. In the case of Microsoft, however, controlling the code and not making it public is a competitive advantage that has generated billions of dollars for the software giant.

Microsoft making Windows open source would mean a seismic shift at the company. Windows code has been hallowed ground since Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were running the company and had no interest in anyone fiddling around beneath the operating system's hood. Having a closed platform meant controlling releases, controlling user experiences and ultimately controlling the revenue cycle generated from Windows.

But during the last year, since Microsoft's Satya Nadella has taken over as chief executive, Microsoft has started to slowly but surely change its tack. The company is no longer just a software firm, and Nadella, in a long manifesto last year, said Microsoft would focus on cloud services and mobile and become more platform-agnostic. His goal is to drive revenue and success through services like Office 365, the company's cloud-based suite of applications, including Word and Excel, and target people through services, regardless of the operating system they're on.

Later this year, Microsoft plans to launch Windows 10, the latest update to its long-dominant operating system. For the first time, the company is offering a major update for free to all customers running Windows 7 and Windows 8. The company has even gone so far as to offer a free upgrade to anyone that has pirated a previous copy of Windows. The move was a not-so-subtle attempt by Microsoft to prove it's a changed company that doesn't believe its future hinges on the success or failure of Windows.

Despite Microsoft's potential change in tone toward Windows, the company has not officially made any stance on going open source, and according to Wired, Russinovich said that any move to the open side shouldn't be expected anytime soon. Russinovich conceded, however, that the conversations have occurred and continue to occur.

Such conversations might have gotten people removed from Microsoft a decade ago. Indeed, in the heyday of the reigns of both Gates and Ballmer, merely suggesting that open source was a viable option would have put the person in direct conflict with the fabric of Microsoft's corporate culture.

''Open source is an intellectual-property destroyer,'' former Windows chief Jim Allchin famously quipped in 2001. ''I can't imagine something that could be worse than this for the software business and the intellectual-property business.''

"Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual-property sense to everything it touches," former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the Chicago Sun-Times a few months later. "That's the way that the license works."

But times, they are a-changing. Microsoft last year made its .Net framework open source. The .Net framework was built by the company to allow developers to build apps for Windows. Now they can use it for developing apps on other platforms. Microsoft's Azure, a cloud-computing platform that includes everything from a service that will run Web apps to virtual machines running on the Web, also supports Linux. According to a report last year, at least 20 percent of those machines are running Linux and not Windows.

"We have not made any open-source policy or business model changes for Windows," a Microsoft spokeswoman said in a statement.