Microsoft's open-source gambit

Is Redmond seriously "thinking" about releasing its source code -- or just trying to confuse the opposition?

Published April 13, 1999 6:48PM (EDT)

Last week, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said that his company is "thinking with great interest" about adopting an open-source strategy -- freeing the long-secret source code to at least parts of its crown-jewel Windows operating system.

In the software industry, this is sort of like the Christian Coalition declaring that it's "thinking with great interest" about endorsing homosexuality, or the Pope announcing that the Vatican is "thinking with great interest" about embracing contraception.

Microsoft has built its staggering business on what it calls "open standards" -- hooks into its software known as "APIs" that independent developers can gain access to -- while jealously guarding the actual code underlying its products. In Microsoft's lexicon, "open" means "we'll show you stuff as long as we still own it and control it and have the right to stop showing it if it suits our business needs."

That strategy has created enormous profits for Microsoft but also a deep distrust of the company among software developers, many of whom have long believed that Microsoft reserves the most important secrets of its APIs for itself. So when Microsoft starts talking about open source, a lot of
listeners roll their eyes.

These were Ballmer's words to a crowd at a Windows developers' conference: "There is a level of flexibility, or comfort, that people have when they have the source code, just in case ... We are of course thinking with great interest about that, talking about it with our customers, and when we
figure out what that means for us, we'll let you know." He also cautioned, "Most CIOs I talk to don't actually want their people to touch the source. They don't want to introduce new variations, new perturbations, new confusion."

A year ago, I proposed in this column that Microsoft might someday find itself at this juncture: that a crisis in getting the next version of Windows NT out the door, a growing defection of corporate servers to Linux and a sense that it was losing momentum to open-source development might combine to push Microsoft toward thinking the unthinkable. Were last week's statements hints that I was right, and that Microsoft is about to make a radical break with its past? Or are they just tactical feints on Microsoft's part, designed to divide the opposition and cloud the PR waters?

Everyone likes to be able to say "I told you so," but so far the evidence backs the second explanation more than the first.

There are three ways you can view Microsoft's tentative feelers to the open-source movement.

1) It's all a show for the court. Microsoft doesn't believe Linux and open source are any kind of serious threat, but the more its execs talk up the competition, the more the Justice Department's claim that the company is a monopoly seems like a turkey.

This scenario is the accurate picture if you listen to Bill Gates, who said last month that Linux was basically only good for "students and hobbyists." Bill is still Microsoft's boss. It's entirely possible that Microsoft has zero interest in open-source anything -- but sees a legal advantage in
simultaneously leaking internal papers that dub Linux a serious competitor while reassuring business customers that Linux is no good for them.

2) Microsoft is genuinely worried, and it's fighting dirty. Another possibility is that Microsoft does see open source as a real danger to its business. Microsoft's operating system (OS) strategy is in serious disarray: Last week the company announced that, contrary to its fanfare a
year ago that both consumers and business users would all unite under the Windows 2000 banner, Windows 98 would not be the end of the line for its venerable DOS/Windows OS. Instead, as the NT update known as Windows 2000 has been beset by delays, Microsoft plans to keep updating Win98 for consumers while struggling to get Win2000 out the door for businesses. Meanwhile, Linux's share of the corporate server market grows at a phenomenal rate. The folks in Redmond aren't stupid, and they can read the

But Microsoft has never been the kind of company to capitulate at the first sign of danger, and there are indications that its statements about open source last week may be a carefully orchestrated cloud of FUD -- a sowing of "fear, uncertainty and doubt" to confuse the opposition. Just as
Ballmer was professing an open mind on open source, another key Microsoft official, Ed Muth, was saying the opposite: "We have absolutely no initiatives in this space to

Open-source devotees have an almost religious attachment to the various forms of licenses (such as the Free Software Foundation's GPL and the less restrictive BSD) that keep open-source software products open and free. Muth's comments suggested that Microsoft has no real interest in the underlying principles embodied by those licenses, and that its open-source strategy may involve
blurring the term "open-source" to mean whatever Microsoft wants it to mean.

Other companies like Sun, Apple and Netscape are also pursuing their own variations on the open-source theme. But Microsoft is the company whose watchwords "embrace and extend" are widely mistrusted to mean something more like
"copy and corrupt." Past experiences suggest that when new ideas and concepts in software development arise, Microsoft adopts them by producing incompatible versions of them -- simultaneously blunting the new idea's marketplace momentum and grabbing a share of it for itself. Muth's comments sound like a version of this classic Microsoft tactic: "Sure, we'll do open source -- but first we'll redefine it so you won't recognize it."

3) There's a real internal debate about open source inside Microsoft. Microsoft has eyes and ears all over the Internet, and its executives can't miss the buzz around open source. It's certainly possible that there's a real argument about the merits of an open-source approach taking place in Redmond today. Perhaps the conflicting public statements we're now hearing reflect such a conflict.

If so, the open-source proponents inside Microsoft have a lot of work ahead of them. Most participants in the community of open-source developers who have collaboratively built the Linux operating system, the Apache Web server and other pillars of free software openly label Microsoft as "the Evil Empire." They're unlikely to jump for joy at the chance to provide volunteer labor to Microsoft to debug Windows 2000.

The open-source model isn't just a matter of publishing source code -- it depends on building relationships and trust with groups of independent developers. Netscape, which started off with a lot more credibility than Microsoft, has run into big problems with its open-source strategy, including the recent defection of two key leaders of its open-source Mozilla project. It's hard for commercial corporations to figure out how to work creatively and effectively with this anarchic new model.

A group of open-source leaders made this point in an open letter to Microsoft. They welcomed the company's interest but reminded it that "open-source is not magic pixie dust," and warned it that a selective or partial code release under some limited licensing scheme would be unlikely to succeed.

Is it even sane to think Microsoft might be capable of moving seriously in an open-source direction? Other vast companies have managed such transformations in the past: For America Online, giving up its hourly charges required a complete rethinking of the company's business model. And
Microsoft itself accomplished just as big a course change in embracing the Internet beginning in 1995. It's possible that Bill Gates could take a bet -- a really big bet -- and turn his vast tanker around once more.

But I'm not counting on it. This change cuts too close to the core of not only Microsoft's business model but its psyche. Truly releasing the Windows source code wouldn't just mean adjusting some spreadsheets -- it would require thousands of Microsoft employees to change the way they think. The
only thing that could push Microsoft in that direction would be a dwindling market share for Windows along with a plummet in the company's stock price.

If you ever hear Microsoft officials talking seriously about the fine points of the GPL, you'll know Microsoft is serious. Until and unless that happens, it's a good bet that Microsoft's open-source talk is a dodge.

By Scott Rosenberg

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

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