Open Source Windows? Don't Count on It

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 01, 2009

Open Source Windows? Don't Count on It

Obama's inauguration must have brought out the optimist in tech journalists. In the last week, Ron Miller and Charles Babcock have written to implore Microsoft to open source Windows. While inspired and with some solid reasoning, I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon. Here's why.

As much as I believe in open source, I don't think it's realistic to expect Microsoft to change course so quickly or drastically, even though Vista has been a pretty big mess for the company. (I would, however, be happy to be proved wrong on this front.)

Open sourcing Windows wouldn't be a simple thing — it took Sun years to comb through Solaris to start open sourcing it. If I recall correctly, Sun announced the initiative about a year before any code was released as open, and then other bits have been coming in dribs and drabs since. Windows would probably take even longer — so, going from closed to open would take a couple of years and cost the company momentum even if they chose to do it.

There's also the legal bits. It would probably take Microsoft a very long time to review the code and ensure that it can be open sourced. I also suspect the company would be hesitant to show its code to the world in its present state — no doubt, it'd take a while to go through the code just to scrub the comments. There's also the matter of third-party code that would need to be rewritten or relicensed to open source it. It's much easier to start a project using an open source license than it is to go from proprietary to open source.

If anything, Microsoft would find it simpler to start by building Windows 8 (or whatever they'll call the next version) as an open source product. That would give the company the opportunity to corral its developer community while not getting distracted with all the side effects of working out an open source strategy for current Windows releases.

Miller says that open sourcing Windows would "get them out of the desktop OS business." The thing is, there's no evidence that Microsoft wants out of the OS business. Microsoft would't be working so hard on the netbook market if it wanted out of the personal computing OS business.

There's still a lot of money to be made in locking in users to the desktop, even if Vista hasn't been successful here. Don't forget, Microsoft's greatest competition to date hasn't been Linux or Mac OS X -- it's been Windows XP.

Miller also argues that Linux shows "the power of a committed community of developers." Well, yes, it does -- but it also shows what happens when a community of vendors rallies around a project. Is MSFT willing to make Windows a commons in the same way that Linux is a commons?

If not, I would predict massive failure at building a real development community. The Linux development community is largely populated by paid developers who work for Red Hat, Novell, IBM, HP, and so forth. Microsoft only needs to look at Sun and OpenSolaris to see that just open sourcing the OS is not a fast path to a huge community.

Microsoft has been piddling with open source in small pieces but to go full steam in that direction is going to require a massive management shift and the company isn't ready for that yet. What I think it's going to take for MSFT to shift fully is the same thing it took Sun — the realization that the business model the company is pursuing isn't going to work. Microsoft has had a little bit of bad luck, but not enough to create the major cultural shift to open source.

This is not to say I disagree that Microsoft should pursue an open source operating system strategy. But, it doesn't seem likely to me that the company is going to embrace open source while it still sees profit potential in a proprietary cash cow OS. One disappointing release (Vista) isn't going to be enough to convince the company that a new strategy is in order.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a longtime FOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat for a number of publications, including Linux Magazine, Linux Weekly News,,, IBM developerWorks, and many others.