- For years, Microsoft has quietly followed the custom of other operating system developers and provided its closely-guarded Windows source code to its best corporate customers as a sort of security blanket -- under strict secrecy rules and detailed contracts.
But Microsoft is now preparing to announce a limited expansion of its source-code sharing programme, under which the software vendor will allow the code to be viewed -- but not modified in any way -- by what could amount to several hundred additional large users.
Doug Miller, a group product manager for Microsoft's server-level software packages, confirmed at last week's LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in New York that more users will soon be able to get access to the Windows source code. Microsoft's plan to expand the sharing programme to "potentially hundreds" of new customers is due to be detailed in the next few weeks, he says.
Like many other vendors, Miller says, Microsoft has been providing its source code to some users for years. Until now, though, the practice has quietly been done behind the scenes and under strict confidentiality agreements, he adds, while declining to say how many users currently have access to the Windows source code.
Letting users see the source code "is really an extension of our support programmes," Miller says. By getting access to the code, IT troubleshooters at companies can work backwards to solve problems that may arise in software. Some large Windows users "feel that if they have access to the source code, they can get to the bottom of the problem faster," he says.
But Miller adds that the impending expansion of the sharing programme doesn't mean Microsoft intends to break into the world of open-source software collaboration. Users won't be permitted to change or modify the Windows code in any way to fit their individual business needs. "The intention is not to allow the chaos you have in the open-source world, where people create code that may be incompatible," he says.
In addition, Miller says the sharing programme isn't a testing ground to determine the feasibility of open-source projects for any of Microsoft's applications, such as its suite of office software. "Microsoft is extremely customer-driven, and we haven't had any demand for Microsoft Office on Linux," he says.
Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at International Data Corporation in Framingham, Massachusetts, says major software vendors have quietly shared their source code with key users to help them understand how the technology works. But such arrangements are worlds away from the give-and-take environment of open-source software collaboration, he adds.
According to Kusnetzky, what Microsoft and other vendors do is akin to a shoe company showing off its manufacturing process to potential customers. "We'll show you how to make the shoe, but you can't make it bigger or smaller to fit your foot," he says.
Stacey Quandt, a Linux and open-source analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says the planned release of source code by Microsoft to an increased set of users is an interesting development. But, she adds, the benefits of simply viewing the code "are limited compared to the benefits of open source overall."