Now for an open source Win2K?

Microsoft will appeal against the ruling to divulge its internal programming interfaces, claiming a right to keep private its...

Microsoft will appeal against the ruling to divulge its internal programming interfaces, claiming a right to keep private its intellectual property

Cliff Saran

Microsoft has been ordered to divulge the secrets of its operating systems software. As it goes through the appeals process, the company will argue that this information is its intellectual property - the company's crown jewels. It will argue that any attempt to make this information open will not only damage Microsoft's business, but it will also be bad for users.

Some would argue it does have a valid point in that if the code for the operating system and the internal programming interfaces were available to everyone, IT firms could, in theory, create their own flavours of Windows. As Microsoft's UK managing director, Neil Holloway, pointed out last week, Unix was open but it was optimised by the IT industry in a way that generated incompatible variants.

With Windows, such an effect would be catastrophic - potentially leading to several variants of Windows. Software would have to be written to support each version, and support costs would escalate.

But this is the extreme - the worst case scenario. It will form the crux of Microsoft's argument when it appeals the US Department of Justice ruling last week.

The nightmare won't happen, however. The IT industry has grown up: learnt the lessons of open development processes. Unix may have failed in this respect, but Linux and the open source movement is a shining example of how a community of developers can build and evolve a single, open platform.When Microsoft provides its users with the links into its operating systems software, it will help software developers, both those who work in IT departments and external developers.

Take, for instance, Robin Colclough, who runs a firm specialising in airport display systems. He wanted to adapt the behaviour of the Internet Explorer Web browser. According to Colclough, the Microsoft technical support staff said such a modification was impossible.

Colclough could make no progress, even after several calls to the MS technical support desk, and after speaking to the Seattle-based team at MS, who presumably had more in-depth knowledge.

Only after coming across an article on the Microsoft TechNet CD, which provides a library of information and example applications for software developers, was he able to pinpoint how to resolve the problem.

Had the information been more readily available, Colclough could have saved both his own time and the time Microsoft spent trying to resolve his query.

Another benefit of the ruling is in terms of making Microsoft software work with other IT systems. Let's face it, Microsoft does a great job gluing its own technology together. SQL Server, Exchange, MS middleware (like MQ Server and Transaction Server), the Visual Studio development tools suite and Microsoft Office work extremely well with Windows 2000.

But users face difficulties making Microsoft software work with Unix. Wouldn't it be better if the Microsoft interfaces were opened up. That way IT suppliers and internal developers could figure out how to make their systems work more effectively with Microsoft's Windows-based technology. This could lead to more reliable software.

Opening up its interfaces would, in the long run, also be good for Microsoft. More systems developers would know what was underneath the covers of Windows 2000, which would make it easier to spot bugs and identify ways to improve performance. It would make Windows a better product. The benefits of opening up Microsoft's internal programming interfaces within Windows far outweigh the risks of Windows fragmenting.

Ironically, the company which used its clout to fragment Java by providing Windows-specific interfaces, will now be appealing to a ruling, on the grounds that its operating system software could be fragmented.

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