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Microsoft lets governments into Office

The productivity package is added to the program that allows governments to see Microsoft source code.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
3 min read
Microsoft is set to add Office to its program that allows governments to view source code for key applications.

The software maker plans to announce in Paris on Monday that Office 2003 will be added to its Government Security Program (GSP), launched in early 2003 to address growing security concerns. The program gives government agencies secure access to source code for key Microsoft programs--initially, the current versions of the Windows operating system.

Its stated goals include allowing government IT workers to conduct more thorough security audits and to build custom applications on top of Microsoft products. But the move was also widely seen as an attempt to counter growing government interest in open-source software, which has been given preferential status by numerous government entities.

The program covers more than 60 countries with intellectual property protection deemed adequate by Microsoft, including China and most of Europe.

Governments have made wide use of access to Windows source code, said Jason Matusow, director of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative, the wider program by which Microsoft allows selective access to source code. They also have requested that the program be expanded, Matusow said, asking in particular for access to the main applications in Office, Microsoft's widespread productivity package and the most common vehicle for creating text documents.

Besides security, specific concerns surrounding Office include better understanding of its file formats to allow interoperability with other document applications. Governments also have substantial concerns about archiving and ensuring long-term access to documents, Matusow said.

"The idea throughout the entire GSP program is we can't decide for each government what's important to them--they have to do that for themselves," he said. "But one of the things we hear often is that they want assurance they can replicate those formats potentially far into the future."

Microsoft has already opened access to the dialects of XML (extensible markup language) that Office 2003 can use to save documents. But most documents are still created in proprietary Microsoft formats such as the .doc extension used by Word.

"We're encouraging participation in XML exchange," Matusow said, but governments "want to see how we're writing things to disk. They're going to be able to see how we do the whole file format."

Matusow said it's too early to say whether Office would be included in the broader Shared Source effort, where source code access is extended to nongovernment agencies.

"This is the first time we've ever shared Office source code," he said. "We're open to conversations with all types of customers and partners, but we have to walk before we start running."

In addition to getting access to source code, participating governments can schedule time with Microsoft engineers, Matusow said.

"The Government Security Program initially was just about the source code, and we learned that wasn't enough," he said. "One of the things we're doing is inviting governments to send their engineers to Redmond to work with our engineering teams. They can potentially sit with the engineer who wrote that code and talk through the issues they have."