Let My Source Go—Not

 
 
By Scot Petersen  |  Posted 2004-03-22 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

An open-source Windows is a risky proposition.

A friend used to joke that there are two types of people in the world—those who can pronounce the word "oeuvre" and those who cant. (Count me among those who cant.) The meaning of the French word is "body of work," usually of a writer, composer or artist.

A corollary to that oeuvre law exists, as it relates to Microsofts most important body of work, its Windows source code: There are two types of people in the world—those who believe Microsofts code should be set free and those who dont.

In the camp of those who believe Windows code should be available under less stringent restrictions than Microsofts existing Shared Source Initiative are numerous developers, open-source proponents and computer experts. That leaves those who believe Microsoft is within its rights to keep tight control over its code. They are viewed by the other side as either Microsoft employees or Microsoft shills.

Count me among those who dont believe the code should be open-sourced, at least for the foreseeable future.

Hear me out. First, I believe in open source and "free as in free speech, not as in beer." Open source has revolutionized the economics of developing and deploying software. IT managers worldwide are seeing cost and management advantages in Linux. Thats because Linus Torvalds and the rest of the open-source community are, in fact, a community—working together, committed to the advancement of Linux and other open-source software.

As the open-source argument goes, if we put Windows through the same rigorous paces that Linux goes through, with thousands of developers converging on a problem like ants on fruit juice, the resulting product would be more secure, more usable, more affordable and less, well, "Microsoft."

There are two problems with this argument. First, just because its Linux or open source does not make it immune to security problems. Research released this month by Zone-H shows that Linux is attacked far more often than Windows. In addition, the research points out that most attacks dont go after the operating system itself, but applications running on it (Outlook, for instance, in the case of Microsoft). Even so, the data renders the "open source offers better security" argument somewhat moot.

The second problem is not technological but political. The reason Microsoft applications are so often attacked is because holes are left open by the software, by administrators and by users. And, lets face it: There are lots of people who just dont like Microsoft and will attack it on general principles.

That said, when Microsoft officials such as Shared Source director Jason Matusow say that the sanctity of Windows code and the Shared Source Initiative are designed to protect Microsofts business model, he and others are being disingenuous. In reality, there are ways to be open and still run a business through other value-added propositions—services, for instance. In fact, Microsoft has been trying to migrate to a software-as-a- service model for some time.

The Fear Factor

What Microsoft is really afraid of is what would happen if Windows source code really does become open-sourced and falls into the hands of malicious crackers. Just look at the firestorm caused by last months leak of old code. The immediate concern was that a code black market would sprout up whose sole purpose was to create and sell exploits. What would happen then? Would the ethics of open source be able to do anything to save an open-source Windows from such a fate?

Certainly not, and Microsoft knows this.

Over time, maybe Windows code will have evolved to the point where itll be safer in the hands of those who seek to destroy it, but I doubt it. For now, opening Windows or loosening the strings to the oeuvre of source code would not make for a better product—it would create more uncertainty and risk for everyone. See, I may not be able to pronounce it, but I could use it in a sentence.

Scot Petersen can be reached at scot_petersen@ziffdavis.com.

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