Let's Get This Straight: Free the Windows source code?

Let's Get This Straight: By Scott Rosenberg. Why Microsoft should think about freeing the source code to Windows.

By Scott Rosenberg
Published April 22, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Bill Gates is now regularly being compared with John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil founder whose monopoly a century ago incensed the "trustbusters" of the Progressive era and inspired the United States' first antitrust laws -- and a man whose name, for high school history students across the land, is synonymous with "robber baron."

This is not good news for Gates or Microsoft. Whatever the historical validity of the comparison -- made most recently and at greatest length on the op-ed page of the New York Times last Sunday -- it suggests that Gates' achievement is now being widely viewed less as a laudable instance of Horatio Alger-style success than as a public-policy problem. And it's not just old-fashioned bleeding-heart liberals who are urging the government to "do something about Microsoft"; Bob Dole has also been lobbying for Microsoft's opponents, and yesterday he was joined by Robert Bork -- Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominee and a longtime opponent of government meddling in the business of business. Bork told Wired News, "I think as the Department of Justice looks at this they'll see predatory practices being used and they'll ask them to be stopped."

Has the legal scholar experienced a change of heart away from his long-standing laissez faire-ism? Or does this issue just look different to him now that a coalition of anti-Microsoft companies has become one of his clients? Either way, Microsoft is in the cross hairs from all political directions. While the courts drag out their consideration of the finer points of browser "integration" in Windows 95 and 98 (company lawyers jousted with Justice Department attorneys Tuesday), the wider battle for the public mind is becoming Microsoft's Vietnam.

If there was any doubt left, last week's revelations about a Microsoft plan to concoct favorable letters to the editor and generate phony "grass-roots" support eliminated it. "The only people who use 'astroturf' campaigns are those who believe that, if their identity was known, they would not be believed," San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor wrote in an e-mail response to my last column. "This is a huge change in the atmosphere for Microsoft, which has had a pretty much free ride from the press and public for years."

The press is now brimming with big features (a Business Week cover story, a series in the Seattle Times) that ask, "What to do about Microsoft?" Business Week runs down the possibilities: "Uncle Sam leaves Bill Gates alone," "Justice slows the giant with 'surgical strikes'" or "The Feds split Microsoft in two." But anyone expecting an old-fashioned AT&T-style breakup of Microsoft -- separating its operating-system division from its applications business -- better be prepared for a nice, long wait, as Microsoft's army of lawyers digs in for siege warfare.

Microsoft's enemies make good arguments about the company's overweening power, monopolistic arrogance and aggressive business tactics. But Microsoft's supporters have a point, too, when they maintain that the courts are a lousy venue for making decisions about software products. Is there any way out of this mess?

I think there is, though it's not one likely to make Bill Gates smile: Microsoft could join the free software movement.

Microsoft's success on the Internet recently drove its competitor Netscape to take the radical step of releasing the source code to its Navigator browser, opening the way for thousands of independent developers to fix its bugs and add new features. Why doesn't Microsoft -- whose mantra has always been "embrace and extend" -- embrace this movement as well and publish the source code to the entire Windows operating system?

Never happen, I hear you say. It's just not in Microsoft's blood. Maybe so. It's a sufficiently unlikely possibility that we included it in our April Fool's spoof, "Microsoft throws in the towel." What could possibly impel Gates to give away his company's crown jewel?

Well, there was that intensely embarrassing incident earlier this week when Windows 98 crashed as Gates was demoing it for a crowd at Spring Comdex. One of the most persuasive arguments offered by free-software movement (or "open source") advocates like Eric Raymond is that most commercial software products today are simply too monstrously huge to test properly. In other words, even a company as big as Microsoft is never going to find all the bugs in Windows 98. Microsoft already conducts laborious public beta tests of most of its major products, and the line between the "final beta" and the shrink-wrapped product has become quite blurred. At some future point, it may simply become more efficient for Microsoft to open up its source code and let developers fix the bugs themselves.

In a provocative piece in Feed last week, "Where Do You Want to Go Tomorrow?", Steven Johnson challenged some of Microsoft's leading critics -- including Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, Ralph Nader technology advisor Jamie Love and Eric Raymond -- to paint their visions of alternatives to a Microsoft-owned operating system. Each answer was a variation on the free-software ideal (which is less about giving software away than about "freeing" the underlying source code for anyone to modify). There's a growing chorus maintaining that, for pragmatic as well as idealistic reasons, we'll all be using an "open source" operating system sooner or later.

But the cherished icons of the free-software world to date, like the operating system Linux and the Web server Apache, fall mostly under the umbrella of Unix operating systems -- a paradise to hackers but something of a wilderness for most everyday users. The only free-software operating system able to win the hearts and minds of millions of today's Windows users would have to be some version of Windows itself.

What other inducements might persuade Gates to free the Windows code? Such a move would have the immediate salutary effect of getting all those lawyers off Microsoft's back. Poof! -- the monopoly's gone. It would also help rekindle the general public's guttering sense of trust in the company. In an odd way, it would be a return to Microsoft's most admirable roots: DOS and Windows won their battle with competitors like the Macintosh largely because they worked on an open hardware platform -- pretty much anyone could build a PC that would run these systems. That created the healthy competitive ecology of today's PC marketplace; an open operating-system platform could do the same for the software industry, huge swaths of which Microsoft would still dominate.

Of course, Microsoft makes billions from the sale of its operating systems. I'm not holding my breath waiting for it to toss that cash out the window. I'm not saying freeing the Windows source is going to happen tomorrow. And I'm not saying I think it's necessarily the best business strategy for Microsoft to pursue. But it's not just gadflies like Raymond who tell us that "Microsoft is doomed"; Gates himself now regularly announces how vulnerable he believes his company is to each new wave of change in the technology industry. If the future is as dire as Gates maintains, Microsoft would do well to think about the unthinkable.

It's happened before. Back in 1995, when Microsoft was playing catch-up with Netscape in the browser arena, Gates executed one of the most effective corporate repositionings in recent history. Till then, Microsoft had pretty much ignored the Internet in pursuit of its own proprietary network; but the company "turned on a dime" and began building the Internet into every one of its products -- leading to the current antitrust battle.

For the open-code Windows scenario to come true, Microsoft would have to be in a much weaker business position than it's in today. But somewhere down the line, the company may be staring at a growing mountain of legal trouble. It may confront an unmanageably vast load of user support problems. Its engineers may face an impossible-to-meet calendar for debugging Windows 2001 or Windows NT 6.0. And somebody in Redmond just might throw up his hands in dismay and take a big, brave risk.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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