Guest column: Open Windows? Don't expect fresh air anytime soon

Hey, if no one else wants to let this goofy Linux thing die, then why the heck should I? Believe it or not, I'm still receiving mail in response to the column I wrote last month about the silliness which abounds in the Linux community.

In that column, in the off chance you don't commit every word of this stuff to memory, I didn't rag on Linux -- in fact, I referred to it as a "fine piece of work", as I recall. I just poked a little fun at the stupid penguin mascot, the scarily cult-like Linux developer crowd, and, most blasphemous of all, Linux creator Linus Torvalds Himself.

Just yesterday I received a letter from a guy named Brian Godsell, a network systems engineer and project manager at Universal Studios in the US.

"It is obvious you have not looked at Linux by reading your article," Brian wrote. "But if you had the skill to work with operating systems, you would not be writing this article to make your $US200. You would be working in the IT industry and making real money."

Don't I know it. In any event, that one sort of fitted the mould of most of the entirely-beside-the-point crybaby responses I've received. Yet I have on occasion gotten a response that at least involved rational thought, like this one from Rich Wilson in British Columbia, Canada, which arrived on Monday:

"Personally, I'd rather use a stable product with a silly mascot than a farce of a product with a multimillion-dollar marketing plan, including old rock songs.

"For the record, I'm writing this on a PC running FreeBSD, connected to a mail server running FreeBSD, and it will go out through a firewall running FreeBSD. All of these machines have little cute demon stickers on them, but that doesn't take away from the fact that they only come down when we make a major configuration change, or a hardware change.

"Last week I was talking to a tech person from the Victoria Compusmart store [a nationwide computer store in Canada]. He said they finally resorted to an every-other-day scheduled reboot of their NT firewall. They find that better than scheduled mid-day blue screens. You tell me who's silly!"

Point well taken. And it's a point that Microsoft knows it has to address, one way or another. How does Microsoft go about winning the hearts and minds of these free thinkers, with their stable systems and little demon stickers on their computers, before the open-source groundswell gets even further out of hand?

Part of the answer came earlier this month at the WinHEC conference in Los Angeles, when Microsoft president Steve Ballmer mentioned that Microsoft was "thinking with great interest" about opening up its Windows source code. Ballmer and Brian Valentine, vice president of Microsoft's Windows operating system group, said they had been studying the possibility of open-sourcing for the past six months, focusing on the NT kernel and Windows 2000.

Those comments caused quite a stir, and even led several high-profile members of the open-source community (Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative; Larry Augustin, president and chief executive officer of VA Research Linux Systems; Russell Nelson, president of Crynwr Software; OSI board member L Peter Deutsch; Perl inventor Larry Wall; and Python inventor Guido Van Rossum) to issue a letter that raised concerns about halfhearted efforts and ulterior motives on Microsoft's part. But "truly open-sourced Windows code would be a boon to consumers and developers everywhere", the letter stated.

So just how serious is Microsoft about the idea of opening up its Windows source code? Well, judging from a recent exchange I had with Microsoft chief executive officer Bill Gates, my guess is not too serious.

During a roundtable meeting Gates had with a small group of journalists when he was in Hong Kong last month, I asked him whether he considered Linux to be a competitive threat to Microsoft. Gates' response was to dismiss Linux out of hand, as is his style. But he did, for whatever reason, volunteer a preview of the message that Ballmer would later proclaim at WinHEC: Linux "does make us think about [whether there are] some cases we should put our source codes out for publication, and how we make sure people feel they have the kind of accessibility that they may want for those things," Gates said.

Yet when I pursued the matter to get him to speak more specifically about his thinking, he gave little reason for anyone to be terribly optimistic that opening Windows source code will ever actually happen. This is what he said:

"The thing that is interesting is if you design software properly, you shouldn't have to have the source code of that software in order to build your applications on top of it. That's the vision of componentised software, that you can build components and replace components without having to look at the entire software and go in and edit the source code of the entire software. And we certainly still believe that the primary approach to build large, reliable software systems will be componentised approaches, not everybody just [working] on the source code and having to know it from top to bottom."

So I have a hunch that the teaser Ballmer threw out at WinHEC was meant more than anything to simply buy some time until Microsoft figures out what it's really going to do to stave off the Linux threat. The problem for Microsoft is the threat is accelerating too fast. And the fact is, not even Bill Gates can buy time.

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