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6/13/2003
10:14 AM
John Foley
John Foley
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Microsoft Coy About Unix Code

If Windows acts more like Unix, and Linux is a variant of Unix, is Windows about to become Linux?

When Microsoft revealed recently it was licensing SCO Group's Unix software, some interpreted it as an opportunistic bid by Microsoft to undermine Linux by not only endorsing SCO Group's controversial intellectual-property claims, but by also funding SCO Group's bold legal strategy. An interesting theory, but one that overlooks an important point: Microsoft may need SCO's Unix code.

Microsoft officials don't have a whole lot to say on the subject. Though they often talk openly about future products, they're tight-lipped when asked what the company will do with the Unix System V source code now at the company's disposal. Back on May 19, when SCO Group disclosed the deal, Microsoft senior VP and general counsel Brad Smith issued a two-sentence statement saying the deal "helps to ensure IP compliance across Microsoft solutions and supports our efforts around existing products like Services for Unix that further Unix interoperability."

So I turned to Microsoft's in-house Unix expert, Doug Miller, to shed some light on the company's intentions. Miller came to Redmond four years ago when Microsoft acquired his company, Softway Systems, which developed a subsystem of Unix APIs that ran on top of Windows NT for the growing number of organizations interested in moving Unix applications to NT servers. Following the acquisition, Softway's flagship product, OpenNT (later renamed Interix), morphed into Microsoft's Services for Unix product, and Miller became the company's director of Unix solutions. But Miller was equally noncommittal about Microsoft's plans, saying only that SCO's code is "an interesting area for us to explore."

Why the secrecy? One reason may be that Microsoft realized it was at risk of having misappropriated SCO Group's intellectual property by using SCO code in Microsoft products without an up-to-date license, possibly without even realizing it. Microsoft officials hedge when asked about that. The license with SCO is not "indicative" of any previous issues of infringement or inappropriate use of SCO technology, a Microsoft spokesman wrote in response to my query. A benefit of the license, he adds, "is to remove those issues from the table."

That sounds more like "don't ask, don't tell" than an ironclad denial. SCO Group officials aren't much more definitive, but when a company spokesman was asked whether Microsoft might already have been using some unlicensed code, he responded, "That's probably accurate." The significance, of course, is that SCO Group is pressing a $1 billion lawsuit against IBM for alleged misappropriation of its Unix code, and it's warning Linux distributors and users of potential liability, too. It's conceivable that Microsoft was susceptible to similar claims.

Microsoft doesn't deny having Unix APIs and protocols in its products, where they facilitate Unix-to-Windows interoperability. Services for Unix is comprised of commands, utilities and libraries drawn from BSD Unix, a Posix layer developed by Microsoft, and GNU utilities, among other elements, Miller says. And Windows Server 2003 comes with new Unix-based command-line administration tools.

But Microsoft needs to improve its Unix-interoperability pitch, a message that's coming from the top. "We must invest in better support for developers who want to move Unix applications to Windows, or extend Unix applications with additional functionality on Windows," CEO Steve Ballmer wrote in a state-of-the-company E-mail that went to all Microsoft employees on June 4. "We have made great strides on Services for Unix, and Unix class-library support on Windows. There is still more to be done to support Unix APIs and scripts on Windows."

That push, more than anything else, may explain why Microsoft needed SCO's Unix code. And it's worth noting that Microsoft's Unix-interoperability strategy is essentially the same as its Linux-interoperability strategy. "We see Linux as yet another variant of Unix," Miller says. Services for Unix, he says, can be used to run Linux applications on Windows.

It's unclear just what Microsoft will deliver next as its product managers attempt to meet Ballmer's mandate for better Unix compatibility. The possibilities, Miller says, include additional Unix APIs, more work in the area of Unix command lines and interfaces for system administrators, and programming-level support for Unix threads.

As Microsoft infuses Windows with a healthier dose of Unix APIs, protocols, and utilities, the line separating Windows and Unix gets fuzzier. Softway Systems developed its Unix layer, in part, so Windows NT could qualify for federal contacts that specified Posix, a Unix standard. With Softway's add-on, Windows was able to qualify as a Unix look-alike for government bids.

Is it possible that, in the same way, Windows might also qualify as Linux? It's a radical thought, but given last month's license, Microsoft doesn't have to worry about getting sued by SCO Group, while Linux distributors do. In that scenario, Windows might be the only Linuxlike platform that could be deployed without the threat of legal action from SCO Group. Talk about operating the system.

John Foley is senior editor at large for InformationWeek. Write to him at jpfoley@cmp.com.

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