In a major extension of corporate policy, Microsoft has quietly
started a program to provide selected large enterprise customers with copies
of the source code for Windows 2000 (Professional, Server, Advanced Server
and Data Center), Windows XP (released betas) and all related service packs.
The standard agreement, which resembles those under which IBM has
traditionally made source code of its operating systems available, allows
customers to consult the Windows source code when debugging their own
applications and to better integrate Windows with individual corporate
However, the agreement does not allow customers to modify or customize the
code, and Microsoft anticipates that problems or bugs that customers may
find in Windows will be reported to Microsoft for resolution through normal
Microsoft lists the main benefits of the program to customers as follows:
one, augmenting the ability to debug and optimize customers' internal
applications; two, improving troubleshooting of deployed Windows
environments; and three, increasing understanding of Windows to promote
long-term success of the customer's organization.
Microsoft says it has already released copies of source code for Windows
2000 and Windows XP to a few large clients as well as to academic
institutions and large original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Now it is
formalizing this process, extending it to Global 2000 customers and making
it routine. The company expects to offer source code to approximately 1,000
large users with enterprise-level agreements with Microsoft. This program
will initially be available only to U.S.-based users, but it will eventually
be available worldwide.
A first step toward open source?
We believe this is an important change in Microsoft policy. It may be the
first step toward a new software development, distribution and business
model similar to open source and designed to support the Internet-based
environment of Microsoft's .Net platform.
The greatest initial benefit to Microsoft from this move will be building
trust with its largest customers. We tend to trust those who trust us, and
releasing source code on the basis of mutual trust will encourage those
clients to trust Microsoft.
However, the long-term importance of this change is its impact on enabling
the software industry (in particular, Microsoft) to leverage more
Internet-style business and distribution models. The biggest problem the
software industry currently has in leveraging the Internet is not
technology--it's developing a viable business model.
Software makers need to find ways to develop and test their
products--particularly operating systems--that can work in the multitude of
different environments that exist in an Internet-based
infrastructure, while retaining ownership and thereby making money.
For instance, the heavily hyped ASP (application service provider) model is
now faltering because it had no way to provide the integration and services
that companies need. The open-source movement harnessed thousands of users
to do distributed development and testing over the huge number of components
that this model demands, but software vendors did not control the products,
and now they are struggling to find ways to make money.
The power of distribution
Microsoft is in the best position to succeed in this new software
environment, and this change in its corporate policy is a good step in that
direction. Although Microsoft is certainly a technology developer, its real
power comes from its position as the best software distributor in the
The advantage of providing Windows source code is that Microsoft enlists
tens of thousands of software professionals in 1,000 or more of its biggest
and best customers to help it test its key operating systems in their unique
environments. This will create a flood of bug fixes, improvements and
extensions that will flow back to Microsoft to improve those products.
In our opinion, the Windows source code will inevitably end up on the
Web--within six months or less--where thousands more hackers will start
working on it, exposing weaknesses. This will help Microsoft improve its
products further until they are bulletproof.
In effect, Microsoft is co-opting the open-source approach. It is
essentially recruiting the technical staff of its largest customers (and
potentially even the entire hacker community) to help it create improved
versions of its software that only it will have the right to distribute.
This becomes the vehicle that will drive the technical community to its new
model for software development and distribution.
While harnessing the power of an open-source-like strategy for Microsoft,
the access agreements specifically do not permit customers to make any
changes to the operating system source code themselves, so Microsoft retains
full legal ownership of its products. This enables it to continue charging
licensing fees and making money--something the open-source community has not
been able to do. This gives Microsoft both the distribution channel and
business model it needs to succeed with .Net.
Evangelism, viral marketing and response time
By making this policy change, Microsoft is facilitating an "evangelical"
community of die-hard software engineers within global 2000 companies that
value being more involved in contributing to future modifications and
enhancements to Windows. Microsoft has exploited this technique for years
across the developer community. Extending this type of "viral marketing" to
its operating system is an effective tactic to counterbalance the community
aspects of Linux.
However, all this is true only if Microsoft formalizes the process of
integrating into Windows suggestions supplied by third parties. At present,
nothing public indicates it is prepared to do that. IBM, for instance, never
did that for MVS. To produce open-source types of processes, Microsoft must
do much more than just give away source code. It must give people a reason
to contribute to Windows, and those people must have access to a process
whereby their contributions are quickly and obviously included in Windows.
A key measurement that will determine the success of this program is how
fast Microsoft responds to the suggestions its customers send. If it takes
Microsoft 18 months to implement them in a new
version, this will only frustrate the people that identified the issues in
the first place.
Large corporate users that want access to the Microsoft source code should
contact Microsoft about this program. It will immediately enable their
internal developers and integrators to better understand how the Microsoft
operating systems work, so they can optimize their systems accordingly. It
also gives these users reassurance that nothing in the code is working
against them. And it gives users the chance to identify extensions and fixes
that they can pass back to Microsoft that ultimately will help them.
Meta Group analysts William Zachmann, Peter Burris, David Cearley, Daniel
Sholler, David Yockelson, Dale Kutnick, Jack Gold, Steve Kleynhans, Mike
Gotta and Val Sribar contributed to this article.
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