CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Tech Industry

Perspective: Microsoft's foreign policy on Linux

Charles Cooper says the software company's new gambit to blunt the Penguinista advance overseas demonstrates a surprisingly deft touch. But is it too little, too late?

For Microsoft, is there a worse nightmare than a world filled with pirated copies of Windows? Windows piracy outside the United States will likely cost Microsoft tens of millions of dollars, if not more, in 2003, serious enough to warrant management's close attention but relative chump change for a company with $28.4 billion in annual sales.

Still, for the most powerful software company of our time, there's something far worse: a world filled with copies of Linux.

The Penguinistas and like-minded folks in the collaborative software movement may yet remain far from realizing world domination, but they are nonetheless making clear inroads. Indeed, several foreign governments are considering legislation to mandate the use of open-source or free software--unless proprietary software is the only feasible option.

You can understand why this is the sort of thing that would make Bill Gates grind his teeth: If left unchecked, international acceptance of open-source software would pose the most dangerous threat to the supremacy of the Windows monopoly operating system since Janet Reno dragged Microsoft into court in the late 1990s.

To be fair, those were the bad boy days, when Steve Ballmer was famously quoted telling the United States attorney general to go to eternal perdition. That demonstration of bad manners proved costly, and Microsoft is not making the same mistake twice.

By way of comparison, Microsoft is displaying a surprisingly deft touch in its dealings with foreign governments. In a bid to slow the open-source groundswell, Microsoft last January announced a plan to share the source code underlying the Windows operating system. Considering how long Microsoft fought against divulging its "secret sauce" to any outsider, regardless of whether their e-mail address ended with .gov or .com, that seemingly rates as a mind-blowing capitulation.

Foreign governments also view software diversification to be in their national interest.
The reality is otherwise.

For the record, Microsoft maintains its Government Security Program is only a response to general concerns about the security of its operating systems. So it is that the program allows governments to view source code for Windows 2000, XP, Server 2003 and CE. They also can use that code to build those versions of Windows as well as view security documentation that Microsoft does not otherwise share.

Microsoft is being too modest about its accomplishment.

In one sense, yes, this is a pure technology question where Microsoft is helping customers with the usual range of security and cost issues. But there's more to it. Foreign governments also view software diversification to be in their national interest. Microsoft may be a needed company but it's still an American company, so why not diversify your software infrastructure?

The Chinese have been particularly paranoid about the potential for a secret "back door" coded into Windows that would let the U.S. government retrieve information from their computers. That may sound like a delusional fantasy spawned by an MSG overdose--but perception is reality. Beijing loses that suspicion when it comes to Linux and other open-source software because customers get to see exactly what's going on in the process.

It will take months before anyone knows whether this will blunt the growth of open source.
Microsoft does not have a foreign-policy czar, but whoever came up with the idea struck a supremely diplomatic note. Microsoft has so far inked Government Security Program agreements with China, Russia, NATO and the United Kingdom, and held discussions with more than 30 countries, territories and organizations about the program.

I think the initial reactions suggest that Microsoft is winning public relations points by catering to customer concerns on the openness question. Needless to say, the company has to walk an especially fine line. Gates or Ballmer can want to press local officials (especially in China) to do a better job of cracking down on piracy without outraging their interlocutors to the point that they sign up with a Linux distributor.

It will take months before anyone knows whether this will blunt the growth of open source. The big question is whether all this is too little, too late.