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How far will Microsoft go with open source?

High-level Microsoft executives are talking up the possibility of making Windows 2000 software an open source project, but observers aren't buying it.

High-level Microsoft executives twice this week have floated the possibility of making Windows 2000 software an open source project, but observers aren't buying it.

Such a move would be contrary to Microsoft's core philosophy. And it would mean the open source community would have to make room for a company that's a lightning rod for the many in the movement.

"The company understands that there are certain benefits to the open source model, but fundamentally Microsoft is a company based on the notion of intellectual property, and open source and intellectual property butt heads in the real world," said Dwight Davis, a Microsoft analyst at Summit Strategies.

"I have to give kudos to their marketing department for always knowing the hot topic of the day," Michael Tiemann, cofounder and chief executive of an open source company called Cygnus Solutions.

Under the open source plan, the original programming instructions for a piece of software are made freely available for anyone to modify or use. The model has proven successful in debugging and advancing Linux, a Unix-like operating system many see as competing with Windows.

Companies considering the open source model must balance the benefits of a vast team of programmers looking at its code with the loss of control of the software. Despite the inherent difficulties, some companies, including Sun, Apple, and Silicon Graphics, have moved part way toward adopting the open source models.

On Wednesday, Microsoft President Steve Ballmer raised the open source issue during a prepared question session at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Los Angeles, saying some hardware designers are more comfortable when they can see an operating systems' source code.

"The key thing I think that we're trying to understand and decide what to do about is this notion of open source. 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," Ballmer said.

However, Ballmer also had harsh words for open source methods. "Most CIOs [chief information officers] 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," Ballmer said.

Though hardly a ringing endorsement of open source methods, Ballmer didn't shut the door, either. "We're really studying and talking to customers about their reaction to this source code availability, and as we figure out what that means to us, we'll certainly let people know," he said.

In addition, during a luncheon with reporters and analysts, recently promoted Windows vice president Brian Valentine said Microsoft has spent time understanding the benefits of open source but has not yet made any decisions about adopting it.

The conference has been abuzz with speculation about the move, but several conference attendees queried expressed a healthy dose of skepticism that Microsoft would ever implement any open source strategy.

Meanwhile, Microsoft today described the open source talk as a "non-announcement," according to Microsoft product manager Ed Muth, indicating that Microsoft's position on open source is less than lukewarm.

"Microsoft's been closely monitoring the open source phenomenon and specifically Linux for a year or more," Davis said. "But as far as I'm aware, there is no intent at Microsoft to broadly open its operating system."

Might "break out elements" of code
More likely, Microsoft would consider "tactical" releases of selected pieces of code instead of the 30 million lines of code that is Windows 2000, Davis said. "It's possible Microsoft might break out elements of Windows 2000 or elements of its applications as open source," he said.

Microsoft also has been pointing to Linux as evidence of competition in the operating system marketplace, a key point in the Justice Department's monopoly case against Microsoft.

Tiemann added that Windows 2000 has limited appeal as an open source project, because programmers want to be able to feel like they can make a difference.

"You have to fix it before you can use it. What kind of free software is that?" Tiemann said.

Not surprisingly, Tiemann favored Linux over Windows NT as an open source project. "It's like the homesteaders. One option is free land in California. The other is to go across exploding lava pits to live in caves 3,000 feet below the surface of the Earth," he said.

The open source model has roots decades old, when early Unix developers shared their ideas. More recently, it has been popularized by successes such as the Linux operating system, now embraced to varying degrees by the world's biggest computing companies, and the Apache Web server, widely used to deliver Web pages across the Internet and adopted by IBM.

Seminal "Cathedral"
Eric Raymond is credited for canonizing some of the open source principles and motivations when he wrote "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," the story of how he decided to call upon the open source community to help write the email software Fetchmail.

In a leaked internal memo, Microsoft engineer Vinod Valloppillil cited Raymond's paper when he wrote about the threats posed by open source software in the "Halloween" memos.

"In a way, they envy the mass of developers you can have making improvements or fixing problems," Davis said.

Sun has tried to tap into some of this power with its Community Source License, which lets anyone look at some Sun source code but that keeps ultimate control of the software in Sun's hands.

Microsoft's approach to the Universal Plug and Play initiative indicates the company recognizes the benefits of lifting the veil from its proprietary technology in the hopes of gaining industry support. Although UPnP is more of a hardware-level set of protocols, the decision to make the architecture public, for free, indicates the changing attitudes about open source software at the company.

"We're trying to make the source readily available for no cost?to gain adoption from industry," said Phil Holden, group product manager at Microsoft.