When I switched the topic of my column to address open-source and Linux issues, I looked forward to one thing - not being compelled to write about Windows very often. Yet here I am writing about that operating system for the third week in a row. Life is funny that way. I don't hate Windows as much as I used to, so its fans can relax some.
I suspect the reason I don't hate Windows as much is because I only use it to play games. I'm guessing that if Windows has so easily become irrelevant in my life, it won't be long before it becomes irrelevant to many others.
Recently, I called for Microsoft to open the source code to Windows so we could be certain it didn't have any secret back doors. Most of the people I've heard from on the topic agree. One person insisted that people could be embedding back doors into Linux as well. It is certainly possible. But here's the crucial difference between Windows and Linux. If someone puts a back door into Linux, it will eventually be found; then it can be eliminated, the kernel can be rebuilt, and the program can be running safely again within minutes. With Windows, it is extremely difficult to even verify the existence of the back door. And if by chance a back door can be verified, it is practically impossible to eliminate it yourself because you don't have the source code to rebuild the kernel.
Last week I talked about a very cool product, Win4Lin (www.netraverse.com), which allows you to run Windows 95/98 under Linux: You can run Linux but still use company-standard applications such as Office or Outlook. What's cool is Win4Lin seems to cause virtually no performance degradation in Windows or Linux. In fact, Windows seems to run even faster than it does natively.
Now I have both good news and bad news about Windows. The good news is people tell me recent versions of Windows are more stable than past versions, and future versions of Windows look even more promising. The bad news is why. According to a source with access to internal Microsoft developers, Microsoft has dedicated resources specifically to the task of analysing Linux source code and rewriting sections of it for use in Windows. According to my source, it is the adoption and translation of Linux code that is helping Windows become more stable.
If this is more than just a rumour, it could mean trouble for Microsoft. I'm no lawyer, but I suspect that this practice may violate the GNU General Public License (GPL) under which Linux is licensed. Depending on how Microsoft is using the code, the company may be required to release some or all of the source code for Windows to avoid violating the provisions of the licence. This could also be bad news for Microsoft if an ambitious lawyer smells cash and sniffs out the potential to sue Microsoft for violation of the GPL. Because Microsoft has lots of cash, such a suit would be tempting.
Even if no one would take that case, there is still one other reason this is bad news, especially for Windows users. If Windows is improving because its developers depend on the excellence of Linux source code, then one can only conclude that Windows will always be at least one step behind Linux in terms of innovation and quality.
Microsoft has squashed competition based on the fact that it has always been able to keep its competitors in the catch-up mode. But if Linux developers are the teachers, and Windows developers are the students, that gives Linux not only the technical advantage but a public perception advantage as well.
Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org