Late last winter, Microsoft announced that approximately 1000 of its biggest customers would gain access to the Windows source code so that they could find bugs, write more efficient applications, and gain a better understanding of how the OS works. Previously, Microsoft gave source-code access only on a case-by-case basis and only to select customers such as PC makers and financial and academic institutions. The new program extends Windows source-code access to customers that have more than 1500 inhouse Windows licenses and hold Microsoft Enterprise Agreement or Upgrade Advantage volume licenses.

The expanded program offers read-only access to the source code for Windows 2000 (all client and server versions), Windows XP (formerly code-named Whistler), and all associated service packs. Microsoft says that access to the source code will help only those companies that have the engineering resources to understand its tens of millions of lines of code. Although many companies have declined the source-code offer because it wouldn't benefit them, enough corporations were interested to convince Microsoft to expand the program.

Customers who receive source code access won't be able to modify the code or create different versions of the OS. "We believe it's in our customers' best interests—and our \[best interest\]—to have a standard, stable platform," said Steve Lipner, lead program manager for Microsoft's .NET Enterprise Server marketing group. Customers can use the typical support channels to report bugs directly to Microsoft.

The program expansion comes at a time when the open-source software market, in which platforms such as Linux come with full source-code access, poses a true threat to Microsoft. However, Lipner tells me that the new program has nothing to do with Linux or any other open-source software project. "This program is being done in an attempt to meet the needs of our customers, period," he said. "We're not doing this in reaction to Linux or anything else, no more than \[Digital Equipment's\] licensing of VMS \[a decade ago\] was done in response to Linux. \[This program expansion\] is just something that our enterprise customers expect." Lipner added that Microsoft has given away OS source-code access since entering the enterprise market, before the development of Windows NT.

Certain circles see more open access to the Windows source code as inevitable. Open-source partisans have long called on Microsoft to make its OS and application source code more available, citing reasons such as quick turnaround time for bug reporting and security fixes. But Lipner says that Microsoft has no plans to extend this program beyond the company's high-end enterprise customers, although international enterprise customers will be able to join the program by the end of the year. "As far as adding more customers," Lipner said, "Windows source code is a lot of material, and practically speaking, you'd have to be of some size to do anything with it."

If Windows continues to lose ground to Linux, I wouldn't be surprised to see a dramatic shift in Microsoft's source-code policy. In the meantime, the source code is available, albeit only to Microsoft's largest customers.