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Microsoft's Source Code Leak - A Different Perspective

Microsoft's Source Code Leak - A Different Perspective

  • Read Paul Nowak's other recent LinuxWorld essays here.

    Microsoft’s reported source code leak of portions of the Windows NT and Windows 2000 operating systems today has the potential to be the best thing that ever happened to Microsoft technically.

    Think about it from the perspective of Microsoft becoming an open source company and finally being able to take advantage of thousands of programmers reviewing their code and suggesting improvements, discussing it, and becoming, dare I say, attached to it.

    Yes, this is going to be a PR disaster for Microsoft both from the angle of security, and, if enough people get a look, from the angle of code quality. Also, expect to hear regular percussive implosions for weeks to come on the issue of intent – the story of who did this and why. The story has to tangle its way inside and outside of Microsoft as it develops. That’s the soap opera side of the story though.

    The long-term play is all about technical issues driving business change. To some meaningful extent now, the Genie has taken one more step out of the bag and it’s a big step no matter the intent or PR repercussions. Strategically, the only thing Microsoft has to protect are the nondocumented or under documented aspects of its OS API, its proprietary protocols and its file formats. So often we hear about open standards, but what that that really comes down to is open APIs for application development and open protocols and file formats for communications and file portability.

    Unless this source code reveals some of those keys to the kingdom – and, though unlikely, it might -- Microsoft loses nothing here other than getting a red face and needing to re-evaluate the reigns on its new source-review program.

    I doubt anyone with a tie sitting at the desk of a proprietary software company is going to agree with this thinking about the long-term effects, but I can’t see how this can be anything but a positive. Even if the quality of the code is laughable, it’s a win.

    Unfortunately, this code is not going to be flying around on mirrored servers like the latest Linux kernel patch. It’s going to be corralled and contained and then wiped away. If you think the RIAA is bad, file sharers hosting this hunk of ones and zeros should really put the asbestos on. I urge Microsoft to reconsider this. The company needs to consider a partial open source model for code development if it hopes to survive the coming open source onslaught. All you have to do is look at the annual improvement in any of the major open source software projects and you will quickly see that Microsoft’s days as maker of the leading desktop client platform are getting scarce as a massive open source engine passes it by.

    Microsoft’s policy should be to open those aspects of its OS and apps that do not give the keys to its kingdom away. That would mean things that don’t touch on proprietary aspects of communications protocols, file formats, and APIs. Take the best of the open source movement and embrace it where you can and retain the close source model for strategic business technology. Seems like a classic no-brainer.

    In fact, I can take this partial open source strategy to a whole new level than what's written here but I’m not a fan of closed source software so I’m going to hold my tongue and not give Microsoft the keys to extending its market domination for several more years. What I can say is it’s going to be an ever more interesting next few years as businesses come to grapple with and harness the power of the open source movement.

    Going back to the intent issue, maybe this is a classic misdirection, with Microsoft actually releasing some ‘safe’ portions of its own code base to watch it play out over the forces and currents that are today’s Internet. I hope Bill Gates is reading; and then again, I hope he’s not.

  • More Stories By Paul Nowak

    Paul Nowak first used Linux in 1995 while migrating from Sun to Linux at the University of Michigan. He used Linux in subsequent IT projects including web, telecom, telemetry and embedded projects and is currently CIO of a small professional association based in Washington D.C.

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    Most Recent Comments
    Mario Pintaric 02/23/04 12:24:32 AM EST

    Does anyone remember Be, oh, and while we're at it, lets go way, way back to VisiCorp and the "first" windows environment for the PC, VisiOn. And we should not forget Digital Research’s GEM, and the many other worthy contenders that were in the mix, like X Windows (one the first open source success stories). A brief and accurate history is given here: http://members.fortunecity.com/pcmuseum/vision.htm. I mention this because Microsoft beat them all, and that was when such opportunities were ripe. The demise of Microsoft is a fantasy because all the other worthy contenders to Microsoft are nascent versions of the same monetary idolatry that has no sense of the notion of fair play. What will defeat a Microsoft style organization? An open source initiative is hopeless for the same reason you would not tell an enemy how/when/where you are going to proceed with an assault.

    To beat Microsoft you have to hide in obscurity for two years, developing a revolutionary 3D/talking head, partially sentient software platform for a future optical computer hardware architecture, and you need about $240 million in cash for the software development aspect of the effort and about two dozen of the best developers on the planet, plus another two dozen of the best mathematicians and linguists.

    It’s up for grabs by any of the major nations or corporations. Ahh, but there’s a slight problem. We need a visionary and somewhat benevolent dictator/dynamo that has a mix of technical/marketing/political wit, and some really good connections with either their government or the backing of a major corp like IBM. Who will that be?

    You perhaps?

    Benjamin Fan 02/17/04 09:16:48 AM EST

    What's the big deal?!?!

    Security-wise, this stuff has been available for years. Just ask your friends and colleagues who've worked for Shared Source Initiative members or for security firms. The profane comments in the source are a humorous note but the _key_ issue is culture: although they're _very_ bright the MS people seems to build OSs like application programmers - featuritis rather than engineering a strong foundation. I'm sure they are capable of doing better; Bill's just got to reward them appropriately.

    One thing that struck me about .Net was the fact that it looked so much like Java i.e. sandboxed. Users can't exploit the OS bugs if they can't escape the sandbox. And I'd much rather debug a sandbox than the whole OS...

    As for API investment: Get Real. Windows API never really had much of a shelf life. Compare the longevity of their technologies to those which have to support real system lifetimes... Technology changes means sales. This is the real world guys: there are no such things as partners or communities - only revenue streams.

    Gary Edwards 02/16/04 05:40:28 PM EST

    No doubt that Microsoft benefits from the wisdom of P.T. Barnum's cynical insight, "There's a sucker born every minute". But my own experience is that youthful developer exuberance is more often than not tempered by the hard cash lessons of oft burnt investors. Not that i would ever want to underestimate the blinding power behind a dream filled lust for success and fame. But the hard financial lessons of being wiped out tend to get burned into the process of future qualification methods. The Microsoft question has to be answered if the effort is to be funded.

    I'm also of the opinion that the anti trust settlement has raised the issue of having to compete against Microsoft to be more important than ever.

    The settlement is a double edged sword. On the one hand Microsoft was found guilty of some of the most reprehensible and often illegal business practices known. On the other hand though, there was no punishment. In fact, one could easily argue that it's now a legally settled matter that Microsoft owns "all" the opportunities on the Windows platform. Compete there at your own risk. We even have the chilling specter of a judge trying to decide how much Microsoft can charge would be competitors for the critical information they would need to enable their alternative systems to interoperate with the great monopoly. How do we ever get a level playing field with Microsoft still in control of determing what is released to competitors, and a judge twiddling the price to be paid Microsoft for the privilege of competing?

    If Linux didn't exist, the double edged sword of the anti trust settlement would have assured a Linux be created. I think many expected the Justice Department to step in and restore some sense of fairness to the information technology industry. When that didn't happen, it became increasingly clear to many that it's everyman for himself. When the official justice system fails, it's only natural for citizens to resort to vigilante justice. In this case, that means open source, open standards, and a GPL'd Linux.

    Not that i want to take anything away from Linux. It's a great OS kernel in it's own right. But i think that years after Linux becomes the world's default universal operating system, owned by no one, shared by all, one could make the argument that two very prominent legal events contributed to the surge. First there was the BSD - AT&T law suit, an action that stalled BSD's growth. The impact of legal uncertainty was on full display. And then there's the MS anti trust settlement, a wake up call if ever there was one. The impact of a chilling certainty now on display.

    IMHO, these legal actions accelerated the growth of Linux and OSS. But they are hardly the defining reason for that growth. Au contraire, the legal actions represent the full blossom of what's essentially wrong with BSD, UNiX, and Windows. One simply can't discount the unique impact of the GPL, of Linus' leadership and delegation style, and the benevolent ambitions and open participation of open source collaborative communities. These aspects combined to produce a perfect storm. The kind of storm vigilante's seeking justice, freedom, and the fair pursuit of opportunity will ride to far into the future.


    GPL open XML technologies and be done with it!

    Robert Montante 02/16/04 11:28:10 AM EST

    Edwards' piece is very interesting, but I'm not sure I can buy his belief in the devolpor community's reluctance to keep chasing the pot of gold at the end of Microsoft's rainbow.

    Consider: The "seminal" Shulman book he mentions was just the follow-on to a sequence of "Undocumented DOS" books. This game had been going on since the days of TSR's in DOS v2.

    Then there's the age problem. Will an early-20's developer react strongly to a backstabbing that happened during their grade-school days?

    I find much more hope in the promise of an alternative. That's where Linux comes in --- it provides a choice. Just as Unix did, to S/360. Just as DOS did, to systems managed (controlled) by centralized DP departments.

    LinuxBites 02/16/04 10:45:27 AM EST

    I think folks are really missing the point on this issue. The MS code leak has been touted as a detriment. In essence, the code has accidentally been released as "open source". If its true this is a detriment to Windows users, to Microsoft, and to general computer security, then how can code that is always in the wild be any safer? I expect MS to spin this, proving their point that open source software is unsafe.

    Gary Edwards 02/15/04 10:22:31 PM EST

    Thanks for the kind comment Paul. I thought this issue to have died years ago when Judge Jackson was unceremoniously removed from the anti trust case, and replaced with a la la land laissez faire advocate.

    I recall the particular debate concerning Judge Jackson's decision to split Microsoft along the lines of OS and Applications/Tools divisions. His desire seemed to be to grant MS their OS monopoly, but level the playing field for developers at the application level. In essence, Making the promise of the Chinese Wall a reality.

    At the time, i didn't agree with Judge Jackson. My thinking was, and still is, that we can't afford to put something as important as the general application carrier (the OS) into the hands of someone so wickedly dishonest and untrustworthy. A better solution, or so i thought, would be to open the Win32 API. This would enable application providers and competitive platforms to port Windows applications at will. Sort of a WiNE Project on steroids.

    The interesting thing is to look back and realize that both these approaches are reinstatements of important promises Chairman Bill used to build his empire, and then defaulted on to seize any and all opportunities.

    Building a legal Chinese Wall by splitting MS into at least two separate entities, is however a solution demanding constant Justice Department oversight. Cracking open the Win32 API is more of a one time affair where continued oversight for future violations (the introduction of secret API calls) can simply be maintained by the marketplace. I.E., anytime an application fails to port, the burglar alarm rings signaling a monopolist theft is underway.

    Now that Microsoft is abandoning both the Win32 API and the worthless MFC in favor of the next generation .NET API, they're even more reasons for the courts to consider releasing the vast inventory of legacy Windows applications through an open API directive. Let's see, Microsoft will no longer be supporting the Win32 API. Users have a seriously vested interest in that API. Consumers (users and developers) should be granted the right to choose between either upgrading to XP - Longhorn, or, jumping to another OS via WiNE, and do it with their vested interests intact.

    The anti trust action purported to reinstate competition and choice. Maybe the whole issue could have been reduced to answering the question, "Is there a way to hold Chairman Bill to key contractually binding promises he made, and then defaulted on?"

    Being from California, i am invited o file my claims against Microsoft according to the class action settlement. There is a monetary settlement for past damages Microsoft inflicted on users, but my claim is measured entirely in terms of how many Microsoft products i've purchased since 1995.

    This has me scrat6chign my head. Of course i've had to purchase many Microsoft products, but it's all the other Win32 API based applications i've purchased that really piss me off. An honest settlement would have me getting reimbursed for my Microsoft purchases, and, either getting reimbursed for all the Win32 API applications that i can't port to the alternative platform of my choice or having Microsoft pay for the cost of porting them. Truth be told, the reason most people stay on the Microsoft upgrade treadmill isn't that they want improved or more secure performance for their applications. It's that they need to keep their legacy applications on line, and those applications can only run on Win32 API rails.

    Needless to say my feel good for a moment preference is to have Microsoft pay for the cost of porting mine and everyone else's legacy of Windows applications to the platform of our choice. But of far more lasting value would be for the courts to force open the Win32 API, and let the WiNE Project have at it. And MS can keep the reimbursement dollars.

    Which plan do you think Microsoft prefers? Reimbursing me for their felonious actions? Or, paying me nothing, but having to open up the Win32 API, setting free my platform specific application investments once and for all?

    I think so too,

    Paul Nowak 02/15/04 08:09:53 PM EST

    Gary, that was one superb bit of feedback and history. I agree with what you've said and that the current events are not enough to lure developers to MSFT's aid. What I do think though is that this has the potential to be a trial for MSFT to rethink the openess of it's code base and to test a partially open model. I don't think a partially open code model will work but, it may offer some compelling advantages that we cannot anticipate as the screws begin to tighten on MSFT and as it is willing to extend more into its customer communities. In otherwords, it's a brand new ball game if MSFT wants to play it and where it goes is anybody's guess.

    The other comment on your feedback is this: a lot of the steps MSFT took in the 80's and 90's to clear out OS/2 and other competitors are things the current open source community should be touting. I think if we look at Bill's keynotes from 1986-1991, we should see a lot perfect marketing language and strategies for today's open source movement. OSS is in the same position today as MSFT was then only I would say OSS is even a much more powerful engine than MSFT ever was and the outcome of OSS dominating the market is even more assured. So, perhaps Bill's old keynotes are just a little fuel to speed that process along.

    Gary, that was a great! comment / story and I enjoyed reading it.


    Gary Edwards 02/15/04 06:36:01 PM EST

    "Strategically, the only thing Microsoft has to protect are the nondocumented or under documented aspects of its OS API, its proprietary protocols and its file formats."

    There is no way to strategically protect the core of the Windows monopoly and at the same time engage the hearts and minds that drive the great open source engine.

    We've reached the tipping point precisely because Microsoft has lost the enthusiasm and interest of the developer community's best and brightest. And whether this happened because of the reprehensible business practices of a recidivist reprobate, or, because Redmond insist on welding the hood shut, doesn't really matter. The combination of felony mistrust and a determined secrecy where it counts most is certain to outweigh the powerful lure of Windows' vast marketshare.

    Microsoft's greatest problem with developers and the investors who fund their efforts is that Redmond controls all the opportunities on Windows. They do this through control of API's, proprietary protocols, and file formats. As long as they control those aspects of the platform, all platform based opportunities belong to Microsoft. If not now, then whenever the time comes when specific market category opportunities become profitable enough for Microsoft to seize them. That they can seize these opportunities at will is exactly why developers and investors have gone elsewhere.

    In fact, as a former Windows developer, i would argue that the seminal moment came as far back as 1994, with the publication of, "Undocumented Windows: A Programmers Guide to Reserved Microsoft Windows Api Functions", by Andrew Schulman. The book was promoted as "the definitive programmer's reference to Windows providing easy access to information on more than two hundred vital functions Microsoft has left undocumented". But what Andrew was really shouting to the developer community was that they were playing against a stacked deck.

    There is no question that early on in the life of Windows, Microsoft poured resources into the developer community. Their support was extraordinary and has become the stuff of legends. With the publication of Schulman's book, however, the sinister deceit behind that massive support effort became clear. And following the Netscape IPO in 1994, the exodus from Windows to the Internet began. Necessity isn't the mother of invention. Opportunity is. Unfettered opportunity.

    Let me explain what i mean by "sinister deceit". My company released the first Windows based "Contact Manger". The big DOS houses like ACT had, at the time, taken the bait for OS/2, wasting enormous time and resources pursuing a marketplace that Microsoft strategically back stabbed. As Microsoft recruited developers, part of their whispered spiel to the little guys was that the big DOS development houses were going down the dead end track of distant 32 bit OS/2 development, instead of pursuing the very real market driven opportunities based on the Win16 API. The real targets of the OS/2 back stabbing were the big DOS houses of WordPerfect, Borland, Software Publishers, Lotus, and Ashton Tate. We knew that, and went along with the gambit never realizing that if successful, we would be next.

    Believing that Microsoft was good to their word that they fully supported and would honor their oft stated commitment to the development of 32 bit OS/2, the established marketshare leaders, the big DOS houses, pursued a costly development strategy that would eventually clear the Windows marketplace for Microsoft Office.

    Meanwhile, the little guys flocked to the Win16 API seeing a rare moment in time, the kind of opportunity one only dreams of. We all knew that the key to individual success was convincing the larger developer community to commit their resources to the emerging Windows platform. To this end, the MicroSurfs were most helpful. The pumped hard the unsubstantiated rumor that 99% of all future application development was being written to Windows. I kidd you not. And sadly, we, the dreamers with GUI business plans in hand, were only to happy to perpetuate the lie.

    The key to Windows however was a different deceit. Chairman Bill presented the nascent Windows developer community with a stunning plan. He promised that Windows would provide an open hardware reference platform, finally standardizing the way drivers were written. This innovation would commoditize the hardware components, driving down prices, while unleashing the vast untapped potential of entrepreneurial participation. With this part of the promise, Chairman Bill laid the foundation for the pc revolution finally reaching it's mass market potential.

    The second part of "the promise" was that Windows would ship with every DOS machine, whether the user ordered it or not. What we the developer community had to do was convince users to boot to Windows, where both our GUI applications, and the legacy of DOS applications, could be accessed. The truth was that the developer community had to first convince users to purchase a pc. Then convince them to boot Windows. Then train them in how to use Windows. And finally, sell them on our applications and train them in the use. A tall order, but Chairman Bill did his part. And the opportunity was at hand.

    The last part of the promise was that the Windows API would be open, published, and fully documented. The importance of this promise to the developer community simply can't be dismissed. In the wake of IBM's anti trust (1982), where IBM had been charged with a number of monopolistic abuses, including that of making arbitrary or undocumented changes to their mainframe API in order to spike the performances of competing applications, the open Win API promise was critical. Chairman Bill went so far as to personally promise that there would always be a "Chinese Wall" between the Windows OS group, and the Microsoft Applications group (MS Office).

    The "Chinese Wall" promise evaporated with the publication of Schulman's book. But by then it was too late. The only alternative was to migrate to the Internet in hopes that a platform of universal connectivity and exchange could be converted into one that also included computation. Hence the early excitement over Java.

    Twice bit, first by IBM, and then by Microsoft, i don't think the developer community (and the investors who back them) will be easily dissuaded from their insistence on a platform owned by no one, but shared by all. Open API's are everything.

    There is another aspect to Microsoft's deceit that needs explaining. As i mentioned above, in the early days of Windows, especially with the release of Windows 3.0, Microsoft provided developers with absolutely extraordinary support. And i caution everyone that although this approach continues to this day, it's not what you think. It's end game for anyone who takes the bait.

    This support included both technical and marketing help. We always had Microsoft people with us whenever and wherever we did presentations. They even let us use their offices for presentations, providing food and drink. Making speeches touting our expertise and the strength of our "partnership with them. Lending us a credibility that was priceless. Raffling off MS Office and passing out endless tee shirts to bolster attendance at these gatherings. Helping with print, mailing, and advertising needs. MS support was simply spectacular.

    But what really happened? What was it that Microsoft was really investing their resources in? We're they cooperatively building a platform based eco system, where developer opportunities sprouted endlessly from the openly accessible mass market saturation of Win API capabilities? Or where these efforts a comparatively low cost way for Microsoft to grow nascent market categories until they were profitable enough to seize?

    The answer is of course in the understanding of Microsoft's control over the API's, protocols, interfaces, and file formats. The proof is in looking at what actually happened in the marketplace.

    There is no doubt tha Microsoft went to great lengths to nurture and grow the independently competitive efforts in most emerging market categories. The Windows contact management sector started off with one effort, and within six months spread to include over a hundred different competitive applications. The heated feature race that took place between contenders in this category put the browser race of later years to shame. Features exploded, prices dropped. The tech magazine "comparative analysis" of contenders was cover page worthy, and certain to sell copies. Advertising boomed. Egghead stores thrived. Getting into the distribution channel with a skew number was life or death. Having a 1-800 user support life line that could solve all Windows problems, and, train users in the basic use of Windows was far more important than being able to support your own application. (Most problems were Windows based issues.)

    I don't know how to put a cost on the vast resources that were required to competitively grow the contact manager market category. What i do know though is that just as the entire category was finally looking at sustainable profitability, with the user base reaching critical mass, Microsoft announced that they too would enter the category with an application.

    The mere announcement that MS was planning to enter a market category was enough to freeze development and halt investment plans. It was over for most, excepting those who held onto the hope of possibly being acquired by MS. A few years later, when Outlook was finally released, even though the application was piece of crap the damage had been done. The only way to survive was to, of course, concede the mass market to MS, and move up the software stack into specialized areas like that of call centers, sales and marketing, or target custom demanding vertical markets. Or move on to the Internet.

    By 1995 Silicon Valley investors were only asking one question to whatever Windows developers were left standing, "If you're successful, will Microsoft buy you out, or will they crush you and seize the market our money built?"

    The simple truth is that because Microsoft controls the API's, and answers to no one, they own all the opportunities. Because they control the API's, Microsoft applications do not face the same kind of investment risk factor the rest of us do. Supporting the independently competitive participants in their efforts to grow a new or emerging market category makes sense because MS can always seize the opportunities when they finally become profitable. The only risk they run is in deciding which market category to fan the competition. Competition they can eliminate with a mere announcement of their intentions.

    So if Microsoft wants to engage the hearts and minds fueling the incredible surge of the open source engine, they need to do exactly the opposite of what you suggest. Here's a formula that works, but i doubt if they will like it: open API's, open interfaces, open communications and connectivity protocols and methods, and, open XML technologies (including file formats).

    Don't hold your breath waiting.


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