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Microsoft mulls opening of Office code

The purveyor of proprietary software is looking to expand its Shared Source Initiative to Office, which lets companies see source code underlying Office, server applications and more.

Microsoft is considering an expansion of a program that would allow companies to see the source code underlying its Office software and other applications.

The company's Shared Source Initiative, launched nearly three years ago, allows business customers, governments, business partners and academic institutions access to the source code, or software blueprint, underlying Microsoft's Windows operating system and other products.


What's new:
Microsoft is considering expansion of a program that would let companies see source code underlying Office and other applications.

Bottom line:
The move would greatly expand the availability of the company's source code to businesses, governments and schools. But critics argue that Microsoft's shared-source program can't replace a full open-source approach.

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Currently, 20 of the company's products are available under the program, including all versions of Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003. But Microsoft has yet to extend access to Office, its most profitable product, or to its server-based applications.

That could change this year. The software giant is "looking up the application stack" to determine which products it will offer next under the shared-source program, Jason Matusow, Shared Source manager at Microsoft, told CNET News.com. On the short list are Office, various server applications, the company's development tools and even its catalog of game software. "We're not holding anything back in terms of our thinking on this," Matusow said.

"We're looking at how we provide source code (for these products), and for which communities," said Matusow. In addition to source code, Microsoft will supply documentation and development assistance, he said. The company is debating internally how to expand the program, and no time frame for the expansion has been set, Matusow stressed. Microsoft already offers a program to license the underlying Extensible Markup Language (XML) file formats in Office.

The expansion of the program could benefit Microsoft's partners most directly, since they will be able to more easily adapt their software to work with Microsoft's products, said Paul DeGroot, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft. "Having access to source code for something like SQL Server would be quite valuable to them in terms of debugging their own code," he said.

Overall, the expansion plan could help Microsoft in its dealings with government customers--many of which are eyeing Linux and open-source products, DeGroot said. "This helps to defuse the argument that Microsoft is secret and closed, and Linux is open," he said. "Microsoft has been reasonably successful in taking that off of the table. It's no longer a deal breaker."

Limits to openness
The move would greatly expand the availability of the company's source code to businesses, governments and schools. Microsoft doesn't make complete source code available. It withholds source code related to code that's licensed from third-party companies, certain cryptographic code, and intellectual property that Microsoft determines gives it a competitive advantage, said Matusow.

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The program isn't a full open-source offering; select customers can view the code but they cannot change it or share it with others. Those customers can also examine Microsoft security documentation the company doesn't otherwise share, visit Microsoft's headquarters, speak with Microsoft developers and perform their own tests on the code. Microsoft does allow modification and redistribution of specific products, such as its ASP.Net development software and Windows CE operating system, under a separate program.

Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun Microsystems, one of Microsoft's chief rivals and a key proponent of open source, said Microsoft's shared-source program can't replace a full open-source approach.

"Shared source isn't about collaborating and inventing and supporting software like open source," Phipps said. "It's code that Microsoft thinks isn't worth stealing, so you can look at it but you can't create derivative works."

Microsoft says 2,000 organizations are eligible to take advantage of the shared-source program. Companies must have 1,500 seats of Windows under an enterprise licensing agreement to qualify for the program. An offshoot of the shared-source program, called the Government Security Program, makes source code available to 59 governments around the world, and to the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Community, Matusow said.

The expansion of the program underscores Microsoft's efforts to embrace open-source concepts that underlie the popular Linux operating system, Apache Web server software and MySQL database, and that allow source code to be viewed, modified and redistributed by developers large and small. By contrast, Microsoft has traditionally retained tight control over its source code. But growing popularity of open-source software, especially among government agencies, has forced Microsoft to open its software vault, if only a bit.

Microsoft is in the middle of a far-reaching campaign to slow the growth of Linux--whose premier conference and expo will take place next week in New York--most recently launching a against the open-source software. And the company has made it easier to acquire tools to migrate Unix applications to Windows.

News.com's Martin LaMonica contributed to this story.