Open Windows

It’s an early February morning and despite the freezing temperatures outside, a woman gets on the elevator, her arms laden with heavy tote bags filled with cartons of ice cream.

One of the biggest tenants in the building where I work is Nestle Canada, so this isn’t a huge surprise, but on

closer inspection (and in a small mirrored elevator, there is nothing else to expect) everyone can see that it’s not Nestle ice cream.

“”Stocking up?”” one of the men in the elevator asks.

“”No, we’re just taking a closer look at the competition,”” she said.

Many people in the IT industry are familiar with reverse-engineering — whereby products are taken apart by rivals to see how they work — but reverse-engineering ice cream? How do I get that job? More importantly, will the results of Nestle’s research offer anything as flavourful as what the nine American states hope to get out of the Windows source code?

Late last week U.S. District Judge Collen Kollar-Kotelly told Microsoft that it would have to open up portions of its operating system source code to the litigating states and the District of Columbia. This is a blow to Microsoft, and it shows more courage than I would have given Kollar-Kotelly credit for. After the recommendation to break Microsoft into separate entities was essentially struck down, cracking open the source code was one of the most serious consequences Microsoft faced in the four-year-old antitrust trial. The decision is important not just because it puts Microsoft’s prime asset on the dissecting table but because it will include the most recent version of that asset. Just last week we covered the VSLive! conference where the company discussed its .Net strategy. While the attention focused on the launch of Visual Studio, .Net is all about the platform, and Windows XP is the linchpin for its plans.

The decision also shows the resiliency of the nine remaining litigating states, which were largely dismissed as losers when their neighbours settled with the software company last year. Rather than back down, they turned up the heat to the point where Microsoft could be significantly restricted in its future development plans.

There are always degrees of openness, of course, and we are a long way away from anyone outside a tight circle of court representatives peeking under Microsoft’s hood. Though this is probably the day executives like Oracle, Red Hat and Sun have been waiting for, Microsoft’s lawyers will probably be able to keep them at bay.

This case has always been about bundling. The dissenting states have asked Microsoft to create a stripped-down version of Windows without any of the middleware. Despite its considerable R&D talent and its history in creating products to suit every segment of the market, Microsoft has always claimed that this was impossible. If that’s true, opening up the source code would take Microsoft off the hook, to a degree. If it’s not true, it will be much harder for the company to justify its bundling practices. No more Windows Messenger included in your package. No Media Player. Maybe even no .Net-related Web services — the area that promises companies like Microsoft their greatest growth opportunity in the years to come.

Microsoft likes to treat operating systems like a sundae; the hot fudge sauce, the whipped cream and the cherry just add to the experience. How this industry could change if we were to learn we could all get by with plain old Vanilla.

sschick@plesman.com

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