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Microsoft Co-Opts Open Source On Its Terms

SCO license deal highlights Microsoft's endorsement of for-profit development

In the controversy that pits the SCO Group, owner of one of the original Unix operating systems, against Linux distributors, Microsoft has come down on the side of SCO. Yet, overlooked in the stir created when Microsoft recently licensed SCO's Unix for use in some of its products is the fact that Microsoft has been easing restrictions on its own code.

May marks the second anniversary of Microsoft's so-called shared-source initiative, through which it has made parts of Windows, Windows CE, and other software available to third parties. It lets other developers view the internal workings of its software, in some cases modify portions, and sell products that incorporate the changed code. Microsoft estimates it has made 100 million lines of code available so far. "We're going to learn from open source," Jason Matusow, the shared-source initiative manager, said in an interview last month.

But when Matusow spoke at a recent open-source gathering, he drew demonstrators. Eric Raymond, president of Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit organization that promotes open source, says shared source is little more than "source under glass." Of course, Microsoft isn't fully embracing the open-source model. Its deal with SCO, which sued IBM in March and has warned others they face legal action for misappropriating its intellectual property, is a none-too-subtle endorsement of for-profit development.

Microsoft's general counsel Brad Smith issued a statement saying the deal is "representative of Microsoft's ongoing commitment to respecting intellectual property and the IT community's healthy exchange of IP through licensing." The company is emulating the open-source model in its own way, where it benefits Microsoft while still competing against open source. As Matusow sees it, commercial software companies and noncommercial developers are borrowing portions of each other's concepts.

The differences between Microsoft's shared source and open source are greater than their similarities. Microsoft doesn't have the high-minded goals of those who borrow public programs and share their work. It attaches royalties to some of its shared software and carefully controls its access and use. Some modifications to Windows CE are OK, but any change to Windows is forbidden. Microsoft wants to avoid having to track, control, and license derivative work. Microsoft estimates that more than 200 variants of Linux exist.

SCO was founded as Linux developer Caldera. Caldera acquired the Unix server software of the original SCO and changed its name to the SCO Group. SCO has stopped selling Linux and begun pressing its claim that Linux includes scraps of its Unix.

Microsoft is still figuring out how and how widely to share Windows. "It presents our most significant challenge," Matusow says. So far, Microsoft has opened Windows' internal workings to customers, academic researchers, students, manufacturers, integrators, and some foreign governments. The code can be used for debugging and security assessment. Yet, of the 5,000 organizations that qualify for access, fewer than 100 have done so.

Perhaps the final irony is that Microsoft isn't above using non-Microsoft code in Windows. Matusow says 3% of the operating system has been licensed from others.

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