Just when it looks like Microsoft has finally figured out open source, it comes clear that the penny still hasn’t dropped. Case in point: recently, Microsoft said it would let national governments examine the source code for Windows operating systems. Everybody at Microsoft was scrupulously careful not to mention Linux, but they weren’t kidding anybody. Linux is making inroads in government sales. Linux’s source code is available and can be modified by users. Until now, the Windows source wasn’t and couldn’t be. To compete, Microsoft had to open up a little more.
So that’s what Microsoft did - isn’t it? True, governments that sign up for the new program will be allowed to examine the Windows source only under tight restrictions. True, they won’t be able to modify the code. (Microsoft says some code changes are possible, but it will do the recompiling.) But they will be able to look at the source code. And that’s what they want from open-source software, right?
Of course not. Most big IT customers — including governments — considering Linux want to cut their software acquisition costs. They don’t want to actually look at source code. That would raise software costs, because it would mean some employee was collecting a paycheck for the time spent looking at the code.
No, if you’re using Linux, the people you want looking at the source code are the legions of volunteer open-source beta testers who work for praise or good karma or social status among the propellerhead elite. Those people aren’t burning a hole in an already overtaxed IT budget. At least not your budget. And with so many eyeballs looking for bugs from so many different perspectives, and so many testers whaling away with so many different tools and approaches, you get the benefit of the world’s biggest quality control department — all for free.
But, of course, those people won’t get anywhere near the Windows source code under this new Microsoft program. Only government employees or contractors will get a peek, and only using specific Microsoft tools. And no changes or experimenting with the code is allowed. And with millions upon millions of lines of Windows code, no IT boss in his right mind would seriously consider trying to vet it all.
So what were the members of Microsoft’s brain trust thinking? They probably figured this is as close to open source as they can get. Even if it doesn’t offer any value to customers, it looks like a good-faith effort to open up a little.
But even though it doesn’t offer much in the line of benefits, it does pose a risk for Microsoft. Not a risk that Windows code will be copied or modified — pirates and hackers already do that with abandon.
But there’s a genuine risk that somebody examining the source will find back doors, undocumented programming interfaces or simply poor-quality code. It might actually give some government IT shop solid evidence it can use to cut Windows from the short list of software it uses.
Pretty sad, huh? No value for customers and real risk for Microsoft - a losing bargain all around.
What lessons can we take away from this debacle? For Microsoft, the lesson probably should be to give up on “open source” as a marketing ploy. Hey, guys, just cut some killer deals with these government customers, then write them off as loss leaders. It may look ugly on the balance sheet, but it’s the only way to compete with free software when you’re trying to preserve a monopolists’ market share.
And the lesson for corporate IT? Keep your eye on the benefits, not the buzzwords, in any open-sourceish deal — no matter who it comes from.
Figure out how to do that, and you’re way ahead of Microsoft.