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Microsoft takes a page from Linux playbook

In an unprecedented move, the software giant is sharing its Windows source code with customers in a lesson learned from its open-source competitors.

Contrary to popular myth, Microsoft doesn't hate everything about open source.

While Microsoft executives publicly vacillate between declaring Linux either the most hyped operating system or the biggest threat to Windows, in reality, the company has learned some powerful lessons from its open-source competitors.

In fact, in an unprecedented move, during the past six months Microsoft has made available to "hundreds" of its larger customers copies of its closely guarded Windows source code, said Doug Miller, group product manager with Microsoft's Windows .Net server marketing group.

"Our goal is to CNET's Linux Centermake this (source code) available to many hundreds of customers," Miller said during an interview at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo trade show in New York this week.

Source code is the set of underlying programming instructions that comprise an operating system. In general, open source refers to software such as the Linux operating system that allows programs to be modified by consumers.

By contrast, Microsoft has traditionally retained tight control over the Windows source code, which company executives have called Microsoft's "crown jewels."

Microsoft has licensed elements of the Windows source code to less than 100 software and hardware developers working closely with the software giant on evolving the operating system, according to sources close to Microsoft. The company also has licensed the Windows source code to universities and government bodies under restrictive terms that allow them to work with the code but not make changes to it.

While Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has suggested over the past two years that the company is interested in making the Windows source code more freely available, there has been little evidence that Microsoft actually is interested in doing so--until now.

"Microsoft is so security-conscious about letting the Windows source slip into anyone's hands" that a move to liberalize its source availability among customers is surprising, said Summit Strategies analyst Dwight Davis.

Davis said that during the remedy phase of the Department of Justice's antitrust trial against the software giant, Microsoft fought suggestions that it be required to share Windows source code with any kind of neutral third-party licensing body.

No open Windows here
Microsoft is not going so far as to allow its customers to tamper with the Windows source, Miller emphasized. By contrast, software that is licensed under the terms of the GNU General Public License may be altered by developers, as long as they agree to publish any changes before publicly distributing the modified source code.

"We don't want to be in the situation that Linux is in, where there are more than 140 different distributions, leading to serious fragmentation," Miller said.

Nonetheless, Miller said Microsoft has become proactive in talking to customers about the plusses and minuses of open-source software. He said Microsoft is constantly evaluating the packaging, pricing, channel programs, methods of distribution and other factors that lead customers to select one software product over another.

"Only a very small number of our customers want source code," Miller said, "but we've gotten a lot more aggressive in the past six months" about providing Microsoft's largest customers with source code if they express an interest in having it.

Miller said that Microsoft's expectation is that customers who find a bug or another change they would like to see made in the source would contact Microsoft for tweaks.

Miller said that Microsoft and its customers have not found many other open-source elements worthy of emulation. He said Microsoft believed its existing software development and testing paradigms served the company well. Miller added that Microsoft is moving to a subscription model, rather than to the open-source business model of free software, supported by paid-for consulting services.