Microsoft surprised European Union (EU) Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes when it suddenly offered to license key parts of the Windows source code to competitors this week in a bid to halt criticism of its efforts to comply with the EU antitrust ruling. However, the source code licensing deal isn't the cure-all Microsoft would like you to believe. As a matter of fact, a prominent critic believes that Microsoft's decision to license the Windows source code will have negative repercussions for all Windows users.
This issue is so thorny that it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start with Neelie Kroes, who made the following comment about Microsoft's offer to open up parts of the Windows source code to competitors. "It was a surprise that they decided to disclose the source code," she said. In an allusion to the EU requirement that Microsoft provide technical documentation for interacting with Windows, she added, "Normally speaking, the source code is not the ultimate documentation of anything, which is precisely the reason why programmers are required to provide comprehensive documentation to go along with their source code."
This last point is an important one. The documentation that the EU stipulated as part of the antitrust agreement would help developers understand how to interact with Windows--that is, how to work with the protocols and interfaces Windows supports and provides. But the Windows source code is very complex, and if the source code is taken out of context, it's not very helpful. I think Microsoft was hoping that this blockbuster announcement about the Windows source code would overshadow the fact that the company's grandiose offer doesn't meet the EU's requirements. "This is Microsoft fighting, kicking, and screaming to deliver the bare minimum," Sun Microsystems Executive Vice President John Loiacono told "The New York Times."
For its part, Microsoft would like everyone to believe that the Windows source code licensing offer not only meets, but exceeds, EU demands. "Today we are putting our most valuable intellectual property on the table so we can put technical compliance issues to rest," said Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith. "We're not open-sourcing Windows," he added, noting that the offered code can't be examined by open-source rivals and can't be copied for third-party solutions. Microsoft says it will offer the source code in addition to the technical information the company already pledged to deliver and that it won't increase the cost to third parties.
Meanwhile, Paul DeMartino, an economic commentator for Reuters Research, says that Microsoft's decision to license major portions of the Windows source code will "open the floodgates for malware. Microsoft's massive installed base has attracted the attention of 'black hat'-virus authors," he writes. "The release of source code probably has them salivating, and thus we can expect to see attacks concentrating on the server-side of Microsoft applications in the near future."
Good, bad, or indifferent, Microsoft's offer has opened an interesting debate. The wider issue is whether the EU believes that Microsoft is acting in good faith or is simply buying more time. History suggests that the latter is closer to the truth.