Windows Opening its Source for the Justice Department?

Posted 18 Feb 2000 at 17:57 UTC by dcm Share This

Windows to Open Source
Today the big news hit! Could Microsoft open source code to settle Justice Department Case? Sun's executives smiled, Linux enthusiasts stared with an untrusting eye, Microsoft PR executive scrambled. Immediately Microsoft came out with a press release saying that no such quote can be attributed to Gates. Greg Shaw, spokesman for Microsoft said "He did not make any of the comments regarding source code that were attributed to him".
So why did it come up? Why did it happen? And what does the interview in question mean for the Open Source community? Well watching the actual interview will give you a completely different view of the incident.
The Interview
The interview took place on Bloomberg Television and was intended to be a Q & A session with Gates about Windows 2000 and what its impact might be on the computing world.
During the interview Gates was asked some interesting questions about open source. First he was asked if the fact that Sun had opened up their source meant anything to Gates and his strategy. Luckily the interviewer caught himself and said that Sun has opened their source to some degree, but Linux is completely open source.
Gates' response was that they open their source for certain partners, but more importantly, they provide developers with the tools and documentation they need to create great applications for their operating system. He then went on to say that this is much better than getting code that has been "tinkered with" and could be of questionable quality. He said that users can be assured that when they purchase Windows 2000, they are getting the real Windows 20000.
That was the only reference to open source and Windows in the whole interview. What happened next is what caused the stir.
The Stir
Once the interview was complete the interviewer was being questioned by a Bloomberg host about what took place. The press covering the press has always caused great pride in the industry but what happened during this "meta-journalism" should go down in the text books as bad journalism. The interviewer of Gates said that after the cameras were off he asked Gates if he would be willing to open up Windows' source code to settle the Justice Department's case. He claims that Gates said yes and that was the end of the conversation.
Television has always had the advantage of catching someone "on the record" during an interview, but when there is no camera running, journalists should pretend they are newspaper journalists and get another source for such news. In this case, having seen the interview this author would have to believe Microsoft's claim that no such quote can be attributed to Gates.
Bloomberg tried their best to not appear like a high dollar Slashdot by having their Editor in Chief Matthew Winkler say "We stand by our story, he was asked specifically, and the answer that he gave was yes".
What Does This Mean to Open Source?
So how should the open source community respond to this story? Well first, the mass media technology press should respond to the scar put on their profession by such a story, but the open source community should look at it differently.
If the community ignores the hype and concentrates on what it knows Gates said, it can see how Microsoft is going to fight the threat of open source. Gates said that first they provide developers with "everything" they need to create apps for the operating system. Does open source do that? No. There are hundreds of examples of great technologies that have absolutely no API documentation, tutorials, or even README files. The community has stood by the "read the source" mantra much too long. If it is to target Microsoft, and that has been the claim in recent months, it has to provide the tools needed to create apps easily.
Gates' other attack on open source was his use of the word "tinkering". Gates was trying hard to plant a seed in the minds of IT professionals (his target audience) that buying something that, at least, appears to have no set focus is buying something unstable. While it is known this is not true how does the community fight such comments? It is true in some projects that people go in and tinker with code quite a bit. People are always looking for the latest version of software and when people take the jump into the unstable branch, even if their knowledge is not good enough that they should, the community suffers by what news is spread by that user's experience.
The open source community is a strong one and it has taken the world of software into new territory. But to survive the community has to listen to how it is being portrayed to those who have not yet tried it. Otherwise we can be placed into a position where the new users stop coming.

"tinkering" with Open Source code and patents, posted 18 Feb 2000 at 19:32 UTC by Raphael » (Master)

I agree 100% with the comments and suggestions in the last paragraph.

Some companies and IT professionals are reluctant to using open source software because they are not sure about what is inside... especially if someone who is trusted by all big businesses told them to be very careful about this. But there is even worse: some large companies are simply banning open source software unless it is bought from some reputable company and the contract states that the vendor believes that the software does not infringe any patents.

I think that many companies fear patents even more than viruses or bad code. Most of us think that software patents are bad, but that does not change the fact that they exist now and any company can be sued for infringement. Fighting against a patent is very expensive (regardless of whether the patent is valid or not) and takes a long time, so many companies prefer to settle out of court even if they have to pay license fees.

Let's look at it this way: you are the boss of a large company and your engineers tell you that they need to add support for the FooBar protocol in your latest product. They give you the following options:

  • write the code inside your company (estimated cost for the team working a few months: $80,000),
  • buy a closed source library from a reputable company which supports their product (cost: $10,000),
  • download some Open Source library that can be found on the Internet (download cost: $5)
Let's also consider another thing: you expect to sell thousands of copies of your product, which should result in significant benefits. Now, which option would you choose?

If you choose the free library downloaded from the Internet, you can put a team of testers on it and check that it is stable enough to be integrated in your product (besides, the Open Source model and the "many eyeballs" should have killed most bugs already). But are you sure that there is no patented code inside? Are you sure that there is no IPR Trojan horse inserted on purpose by the patent holder or accidentally by some programmer who was not aware of the patent and wrote the code in good faith? If you use the patented code and integrate it in your product, you are responsible. If the patent holder sues you and asks you to stop distributing your product or asks for huge royalties, then you are mostly on your own. It would be very difficult to counter-sue the author of the free library (assuming that you can identify who wrote the infringing code).

If you buy a product from another company, at least they share a part of the risks (or maybe they are the owner of the patents, so they are safe). If you write the code yourself and keep it as a trade secret, you can never be sure that you do not infringe any patents but on the other hand it will probably be hard for your competitors to discover that you are using some patented algorithm (some of them are obvious, some of them not). But if you are using an Open Source library, it will be trivial for the patent holder to discover and prove that you are infringing their patent. They do not even have to be specifically looking for patent infringements in your product: it only takes one person who knows about some patent, reads the code of the free library and discovers that it makes use of the patent, then sees that your product is using that library. From then on, anything can happen and it is likely that you will loose a significant share of the expected benefits of your product.

I think that most companies prefer to buy expensive libraries from reputable sources, not only because they believe (wrongly or not) that the code is better, but also because they minimize the IPR risks.

I still haven't found any good counter-argument to that (beyond "software patents are bad"). Suggestions are welcome...

Counter-arguments, posted 20 Feb 2000 at 14:09 UTC by eivind » (Master)

Well, not quite an argument, but a partial solution: Insurance.

There shouldn't be much of a problem purchasing a policy through one of the insurance markets, e.g. Lloyd's. Whether the transaction cost is worth it is another matter - it is likely to become so if many companies start doing it, at least.


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