After the celebrations surrounding the launch of Windows 2000, Microsoft was jolted backed to reality last week by the resumption of its anti-trust trial with the US government.
With the Department of Justice (DoJ) giving the company less room to manoeuvre, industry watchers believe that Microsoft may be considering settlement options. In a recent interview with Bloomberg Television in the US, Bill Gates allegedly hinted that the software giant would possibly capitulate if a break-up was on the cards and offer to open up its Windows source code.
Bloomberg said that when the Microsoft chairman was asked whether he would be prepared to open up the code to settle with the DoJ, he replied: "Yes, if that's all it took."
Shortly after the interview was released Microsoft vehemently denied that Gates had made these comments. "He just said that we would be doing our best to settle the case," said a Microsoft spokesman.
If Gates made the comment, it flies in the face of the official Microsoft party line on the issue as well the position he outlined last year. Following the release of the DoJ's conclusions last November, Gates was asked about the open source option, but rejected it outright.
The closed option
"The only thing that we know for sure that would be bad for consumers is anything that blocked us from being able to innovate Windows, or anything that made it so that when people buy Windows they don't know what is in it. Beyond those two principles, we'll be as pragmatic as we can," said Gates.
A deal would benefit both sides. Microsoft could avoid a devastating remedy that could split the company, and the DoJ could avoid years of litigation that would result from Microsoft's inevitable appeal of any negative ruling. However, no one is sure whether the open source model would benefit Microsoft users in the long term.
Gary Barnett, an analyst at industry monitor Ovum, argues that releasing the Windows source code would be to the detriment of the quality of Microsoft's software.
"I can't see that opening up the software to thousands of developers all round the world, with no contractual requirements, would be an improvement on 100 expert developers who work with the software day in and day out for the same company," says Barnett.
He argues that the open source model is not the Utopian environment for software development that many of its enthusiasts would have people believe, and that Microsoft and its customers would not benefit from releasing the code. "Linux is a good solid Unix variant, but it is not a world-beating operating system," he says.
Good for developers
Barnett claims that those who believe Windows is proprietary and that users would benefit if more developers had access to the code to develop more open architectures are wrong. "Windows NT has more software vendors than any other platform at the moment, so the proprietary tag doesn't wash," he says.
Although Sun Microsystems has not yet made its software open source, Chris Sarfas, the company's marketing manager, believes that the model would benefit Microsoft's customers. He argues that while Microsoft controls the access to its code, certain applications run better on Windows than others. "With open source you get the advantage of the best developers getting the best code," he says.
Sarfas said what is listed in documentation describing the parameters of a closed-source operating system is not always exactly what is in the final release. If developers have access to the source code first-hand, users are guaranteed that the applications they are using are integrated as tightly as possible with the operating system. "What we say is going to be in the operating system is not always exactly what is in it," he says.
Last year Sun partially opened the source code for Java and will follow suit with Solaris this month. However, the company is not following the completely open model favoured by the Linux community and has instead opted for a more conservative option. Under the scheme known as the Community Source Licensing Model, developers can use Solaris free of charge in non-commercial applications, but will pay licence fees if they incorporate it into commercial products.
Come judgement day
While the issue of opening the Windows source code continues to generate controversy, Microsoft's options are becoming more limited as the day of judgement approaches.
If the company was worried by Judge Thomas Jackson's so-called findings of fact last November - that the company was guilty of "harming any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft's core products" - it will be less than happy with his latest analogy.
Speaking at the restart of the trial last week, Jackson came as close to laying his cards on the table than at any point thus far by comparing Microsoft with Standard Oil, which was broken up in 1912 by US courts because of anti-competitive behaviour.
Jackson's decision based on the latest round of hearings is expected in six weeks. However, he is not expected to comment until he hears from the settlement talks continuing in Chicago.
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