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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 10:21 GMT 11:21 UK
Opening up challenges to Microsoft
How does Microsoft face the growing challenges from open source, asks technology commentator Bill Thompson?

Image of a man trying out Microsoft Vista
Microsoft's announcement of Windows Vista failed to excite
The announcement that the next version of Windows will be called Vista has singularly failed to set the computing world on fire.

Despite the fact that well over half of us are likely to be running it by the end of next year, only diehard tech heads seem to be interested in "the operating system formerly known as Longhorn".

But Microsoft is facing a much bigger problem than lack of interest in its new OS, a problem that cannot easily be solved by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a marketing campaign or signing up a well-known band to promote it as the Rolling Stones did with Windows 95.

The problem is GNU/Linux, a beast they cannot destroy and cannot seem to tame, a beast that is encroaching on their markets by offering an alternative to the closed development and licensed software model that has made Microsoft rich.

Stuck on you

One benefit of open source tends to be better support for open international standards, a difference that becomes clear when you compare the Firefox browser with Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

In the past Microsoft's approach to standards was simple, and went by the mantra "embrace and extend".

You tell your customers you are supporting the standard but slip a few extras into your implementation.

Once people are using "your" version of the standard they are effectively stuck with you because they have come to rely on the bells and whistles you supplied.

Bill Thompson
Crucially, however, it does not listen to what Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond and the other leaders of the free and open source software movement are saying
So what would it mean for Microsoft to try to "embrace and extend" Linux? It might go something like this.

The Linux kernel, the GNU environment and tools, and many other free software products are made available under the GNU General Public License.

Anyone can take the source code needed to compile the program, run it, distribute it, and modify it.

If they distribute their changed version then it has to be under the same licence, so you cannot improve a program and then keep the improved version unless you only use it internally and privately.

But anyone who wants to can "fork" the code by taking a version and beginning their own development path.

They are obliged to release any changes they make to versions they distribute but, crucially, they are not obliged to accept any changes they do not want: the code, although not "owned" by them, can be managed by them in whatever ways they desire.

This is the situation with the GNU/Linux distributions from people like Red Hat and Ubuntu. Each takes the code base - kernel, development environment, applications - that it wants and enhances and packages it, before giving it away and, at least for most, selling support contracts to customers.

So what if Microsoft looks around, chooses the most stable, least buggy, most useful set of open source software it can find and takes it all in-house?

Common critics

They allocate a billion dollars worth of programmers to shine and polish it for a year, improving its compatibility with Windows Server technologies, donating parts of the Windows and Office code bases under the GPL and turning it into the world's best operating system.

It is common to criticise Microsoft's programmers along with their software, but most of the team working on new versions of Windows or Office are talented, committed and in many cases brilliant.

A team of Microsoft's best coders working on a project they all believed in could, I am sure, do great stuff.

Image of Microsoft boss Bill Gates
Microsoft has to make some hard decisions
What will happen when Microsoft releases its new Linux distribution: Micrix (pronounced mick-rix)? It is everything you want.

It is completely cross-compatible with Windows, other versions Linux and the Mac OS. Microsoft indemnifies you against lawsuits from companies like SCO who claim Linux infringes their copyright.

If you are running Microsoft software already then it is supported as part of that licence, and even home users get free telephone support.

The 24/7 hotline costs another $1bn a year, but that is small change when you are talking about changing a culture and establishing hegemony.

Another $2bn goes into ongoing development and donations to any of the third party open source applications that were included in the core distribution, just to ensure that they continue to flourish.

Anyone who wants to can take Micrix and distribute it themselves, of course, and Microsoft does accept submissions for the code base from the community and looks carefully at what is happening back in Linux world, although it prefers to make its own fixes rather than just take code from the old world.

Crucially, however, it does not listen to what Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond and the other leaders of the free and open source software movement are saying.

While its code is available for inclusion in "old-style" Linux, the many improvements in the Micrix kernel made before it was released make it very hard for Linux to keep up.

Open choices

Eventually Micrix is simply better for most purposes that Linux, OpenSolaris, FreeBSD or any of the other Unix derivatives.

When someone spots Richard Stallman running it on his laptop, the game is over, and the old Linux community gathered around Linus Torvalds falls apart as third party developers move to Micrix as a preferred platform.

Of course, by then few home users even know whether their desktop is running on Windows or Micrix, and even fewer care.

The net's core architecture moves over too, with Micrix on the DNS root servers, and even Google migrates the Googleplex's servers, simply because the support environment is better and patches are rolled out more efficiently and with fewer errors.

Even Apple aficionados are dumping Mac OS for Micrix on their Powerbooks.

Microsoft is not an open source company, even at this stage: at the application level Microsoft Office is still proprietary, but it runs seamlessly on Micrix as well as Windows.

OpenOffice, the open source alternative, is still out there but its largely volunteer developers find it hard to keep up with Microsoft and many Micrix users, now getting their operating system for free, do not mind paying out for a word processor.

At which point Microsoft makes the biggest decision of its existence: which OS does it cancel? Windows or Micrix.

Of course, all of this is a fantasy for the summer holidays. I have absolutely no reason to believe that such a future could come to pass.

Nobody at Microsoft tells me anything, I have not heard any rumours and I do not know nothing. I am just indulging in a bit of imaginative thinking.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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