Should Windows Be Wide Open?

One way to increase competition would be to make Microsoft's source code public

Should the government force Microsoft Corp. to reveal one of its most closely held secrets: the computer programs that make Windows work? That is perhaps the most fascinating of the many suggested remedies that have surfaced since Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that Microsoft has abused its monopoly in desktop operating systems.

Making the so-called source code public would not immediately increase competition in software. But over time, it could level the playing field for Microsoft and independent software developers. And as an important bonus, it could improve the quality of software across the board.

MASTERMIND. Understanding how this could happen requires learning just a bit about how operating systems work and how programs are written. An operating system (OS) is a computer's master controller. A program--say, a Web browser--relies on the OS for virtually every task: interpreting keystrokes or mouse clicks, sending information to the screen, or communicating with the Internet.

The OS consists of several pieces (table). The kernel is the controller, while device drivers link the kernel to to the hardware. When you type the letter "a" in your word processor, for example, one device driver interprets the keyboard codes, while another lights up the correct pixels on your display.

The key to the word processor or any other application on your computer is something called an application program interface. APIs, which serve as hooks to the operating system, enable a software developer to write programs without knowing much about how the operating system actually works. All the programmer has to do is look up the API for the task and then write the appropriate command into a program. For example, a single command will put a message in a dialog box on the screen without the programmer knowing anything about the process by which this is accomplished.

Trouble is, this approach often fails in practice. Independent software developers complain that Windows APIs frequently do not perform as advertised, leading to programs that crash or simply fail to work. "The real problem is the documentation of the Windows APIs," says developer Doug Skoglund of Sands Software in Apple Valley, Minn. "Most of my time is spent testing each one, only to discover that it works differently than documented."

If the source code for Windows were made public, all applications developers would be playing on a level field. Independents would have the same access to Windows as Microsoft developers and could resolve questions about how APIs really work by studying the code.

What would Microsoft give up by opening Windows? The important thing to remember is that making the source code public does not mean giving it away or allowing others to use it to build their own versions. Microsoft would retain ownership, and the code would continue to be protected by patent, copyright, and trademark law. In effect, it would be like a book that you are free to read but not to republish. Microsoft would certainly have to expose a lot of trade secrets, but one way or another, ending this antitrust case is going to cost the company.

Requiring Microsoft to license Windows to third parties is another possibility under consideration, but there has been little interest among potential licensees. The idea has also stirred opposition in the industry because of the danger that the result could be multiple, incompatible versions of Windows.

What would consumers gain from open source code? At a minimum, better software. Instead of throwing up their hands and blaming Microsoft, developers would have the chance--and the responsibility--to resolve problems on their own. Bug trackers would get a chance to figure out what is causing difficulty and suggest changes rather than passively waiting for fixes from Microsoft. And outside security experts would be able to take a more active part in finding and fixing Windows' all-too-common security holes.

Ultimately, providing equal access to Windows code could encourage competition in an applications market increasingly dominated by Microsoft. But even if it doesn't, the software improvement that could result from publishing the Windows source code would be a big gain all by itself.

Questions? Comments? E-mail tech& or fax (202) 383-2125

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE