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In-Depth

Is It Time for Microsoft To Open Source Windows?

Microsoft is already shaking up the Windows ecosystem with its new delivery model for Windows 10. Is it time for Microsoft to take another step and do the once unthinkable -- make Windows open source? We look at the perks, pitfalls and complications that would be involved if Windows were to go open source.

A lot has changed in Microsoft's relationship with the open source community since 2001, when then-CEO Steve Ballmer gave his infamous "Linux is a cancer" interview to the Chicago Sun-Times. Nowadays, the company line -- first stated in late 2014 by current CEO Satya Nadella during a cloud-focused media event -- is "Microsoft loves Linux."

This past April, a throwaway comment by another Microsoft executive sparked speculation about just how much the company was willing to embrace open source.

The comment was made by Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer of Microsoft Azure, while participating in a panel discussion at ChefConf 2015 (see the video below). That conference is hosted by the company behind the open source sever-maintenance tool, Chef Sofware Inc. The panel was called "Have Your Bets on Open Paid Off?" And Russinovich, as the day's Microsoft ambassador to a community that hasn't always had much cause to like Microsoft, spent most of his time there giving multiple variations of "Yes."

Russinovich's comments during the ChefConf panel underscored many of the recent examples of the ways that Microsoft loves Linux in particular, and open source in general. Particularly since Nadella took the helm at Microsoft in early 2014, whenever the conversation has turned to open source, Microsoft executives could be reliably counted on to check off the exact same bullet points that Russinovich did at ChefConf: More than 20 percent of virtual machines currently running on Azure are Linux (check). The server-side .NET stack is now open source (check). Microsoft is now one of the largest contributors to the Hadoop project (check). Microsoft is partnering with more open source companies (check). And so on.

Russinovich's one apparent deviation from the script -- the aforementioned throwaway comment that almost immediately prompted numerous speculative blogs and articles, including this one -- was near the end of the roughly 45-minute discussion. Panel moderator and Wired magazine writer Cade Metz opened the door by noting, "The world has changed and, as a result, Microsoft has changed." Then he asked Russinovich, "Given those changes, could Microsoft eventually open source Windows?"

Once the laughter and applause from the audience died down, Russinovich answered, "It's definitely possible."

"You can open source something but [if] it comes with a build system that takes rocket scientists and three months to set up -- then what's the point?"

Mark Russinovich, CTO, Microsoft Azure, Microsoft

Windows 10: New Microsoft's 'Seminal' Moment
As potentially groundbreaking statements go, it was a fairly noncommittal one, and Russinovich's comments immediately afterward seemed designed to neutralize the impact of what came before. "It's a new Microsoft," he continued. "Literally, every conversation you can imagine about what should we do about our software -- open, not open, services -- it's happened."

For its part, Microsoft was quick to throw cold water on the notion of an open source Windows, with spokespeople roundly telling media outlets, "We have not made any open source policy or business model changes for Windows."

By and large, the feeling among industry watchers is that Microsoft is not likely to give away Windows as an open source product anytime soon. That's despite the fact that Windows is no longer the dominant product it once was. As computing devices have gotten smaller, so has Windows market share. At last year's Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC), Microsoft acknowledged that Windows only had a 14 percent share across all devices. In the late 1990s, when the vast majority of computing devices were traditional desktops and laptops, that number was closer to 90 percent. Now, of course, the runaway OS market leader is the open source Google Android.

The drop in Windows market share has translated to big financial losses for Microsoft. For its fiscal fourth quarter ended July 1, Microsoft reported that its consumer licensing revenue declined by 34 percent, dragged down in part by plummeting sales of Windows to OEMs. Microsoft attributed that slump to general "declines in the PC business market," which has been steadily contracting since even before the release of Windows 8. However, Microsoft also cited "OEMs tightly [managing] PC inventory ahead of the Windows 10 launch, particularly in developed markets," as a reason for the fall in revenue.

Windows 10 officially launched on July 29. We'll have to wait until October, when Microsoft releases its Q1 earnings report for fiscal year 2016, to see whether Windows 10 does, in fact, prompt a financial turnaround. At any rate, Microsoft has expressed confidence that it would. "While the PC ecosystem has been under pressure recently, I do believe that Windows 10 will broaden our economic opportunity and return Windows to growth," Nadella said during Microsoft's Q4 conference call.

Microsoft is also counting on the ability of Windows 10 to work across multiple form factors to win back some of its lost device share from Android and Apple iOS. The Universal Windows Platform (UWP), introduced with Windows 10, enables developers to create apps that can work across different Windows devices, while UWP "bridges" for Android and iOS give developers of those platforms a way to extend their apps to Windows using their existing code. In addition, the Continuum feature lets Windows 10 users seamlessly switch from tablet mode to PC mode. By making Windows 10 more attractive to device users and mobile app developers, Microsoft hopes the OS will eventually run on 1 billion devices.

In sheer download numbers, Windows 10 has had a promising start toward that goal. In its first day, the OS was downloaded on roughly 14 million devices, by Microsoft's count. By the end of its first month, that number had ballooned to 75 million devices -- a particularly staggering statistic, considering that it took Windows 8 more than two months to reach the 60-million-licenses mark.

The obvious catch is that Microsoft was paid for all of those Windows 8 licenses. Windows 10, in contrast, throws a wrench into the traditional Microsoft model for monetizing its desktop client by being released as a free download. It should be noted, though, that the "free" price tag comes with a few caveats, a big one being that the offer lasts only until one year after the launch; after that, Windows 10 will be available for sale at the same retail prices as Windows 8.1. In addition, only non-Enterprise users of Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 are eligible for the free download. The Enterprise edition of Windows 10 requires a Microsoft Volume Licensing agreement.

Though the free upgrade offer comes with a one-year time limit, Microsoft is also promising to provide Windows 10 updates -- encompassing service packs, security patches and feature improvements -- for the entirety of its 10-year support period at no cost. This is at the core of what Microsoft has dubbed the "Windows as a Service" era, which dawned with the release of Windows 10. By letting Windows 10 users continuously upgrade to the latest version of the OS for as long as their devices can support it, Microsoft is cratering its old model of releasing a new OS every three years.

"The biggest change within Windows is 'Windows as a Service,'" said Microsoft COO Kevin Turner during his keynote speech at the 2015 WPC in Orlando, Fla. "The ability to keep a customer current with the latest technology has always been our Achilles with Windows. We're fixing that with Windows 10."

Besides the free initial download and the free system updates for users, Windows 10 is also free for OEMs to license for devices that are nine inches or smaller. Because of these changes to its delivery and licensing model, Windows 10 represents the end of the line for the traditional desktop OS. Turner, who called Windows 10's launch a "seminal moment" on par with the launch of Windows 95, said as much at WPC: "This will be the last monolithic release that we have that was built around the three-year upgrade cycle. This is Windows as a Service."

Considering that Microsoft is, at the moment, essentially giving Windows 10 away, it's tempting to imagine a world in which the company simply goes full-bore and offers Windows as an open source platform, free to use and distribute.

What Open Source Windows Could Look Like
Microsoft has made several decisions in its recent history aimed at courting the open source community. The open sourcing of the .NET server-side stack is probably one of the most high-profile examples of this. S. Somasegar, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Developer Division, made the announcement in a November 2014 blog post: "Over the coming months, we will be open sourcing the full server-side .NET Core stack, from ASP.NET 5 down to the Core Runtime and Framework, and the open source .NET will be expanded to run on Linux and Mac OS X in addition to Windows."

As Somasegar suggested in that post, the process of open sourcing .NET has taken months, with Microsoft releasing components of the framework in increments rather than all at once. One other qualifier: Microsoft's open source plans for .NET currently exclude the client-side components, such as Windows Presentation Foundation.

If Microsoft were to ever open source Windows, it will likely take an approach similar to what it's taken with .NET -- a gradual release of Windows code to developers that stops well short of opening up the entire Windows stack. The odds are against Microsoft completely relinquishing control of Windows, at least for as long as it continues to make money.

At the ChefConf panel, Russinovich also alluded to the technical obstacles of open sourcing Windows, necessitating a staggered code release rather than a wholesale one. At one point, according to Russinovich, Microsoft had made the Windows source code available to academics "to do research on." Though that wasn't a strictly open source initiative, the process of cleaning up the code, "check[ing] everything for IP issues" and making the code consumable by the general public was similar to what Microsoft would have to undergo if it ever decided to make Windows truly open source.

"You can open source something but [if] it comes with a build system that takes rocket scientists and three months to set up -- then what's the point?" he said.

Then there's the question of which open source license Microsoft would use for Windows. According to Black Duck Software Inc., a provider of security and management products for companies that run open source solutions, the top three open source licenses, in order, are:

  1. GNU General Public License (GPL) 2.0, used by 24 percent of open source projects
  2. MIT License, used by 21 percent of projects, including the .NET core
  3. Apache License 2.0, used by 16 percent

The GNU GPL is an example of a "copyleft" open source license. As described by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), the governing body that sets the standards that determine whether a project is considered open source, copyleft licenses "allow derivative works but require them to use the same license as the original work." The MIT and Apache licenses are "permissive" licenses -- essentially the opposite of copyleft licenses. A permissive license "guarantees the freedoms to use, modify, and redistribute, but...permits proprietary derivative works," according to the OSI.

Then there are Microsoft's own OSI-approved open source licensing models:

  • Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL)
  • Microsoft Reciprocal License (Ms-RL)

The Ms-PL, which Microsoft has used to license its ASP.NET MVC framework, is a permissive license. The more restrictive Ms-RL is considered to have "weak" copyleft requirements stipulating that a person must retain the Ms-RL license for any code derived from the original Ms-RL project, but they can use any other license they want for original work.

(Microsoft also has several "shared source" licenses that are not classified as open source because of the types of restrictions they put on code. For instance, one such license lets others view Microsoft's code, but not modify it.)

Their fine-print differences aside, all of the OSI-approved licensing options, by definition, mean that the Windows code would be completely free for anyone to access and modify, and that Microsoft would require no royalties for its use and distribution. However, that doesn't mean that Microsoft couldn't still make money from an open sourced Windows. See: Red Hat Inc.

In a lot of ways, Red Hat is the poster child for the financial viability of an open source business model. Its flagship OS product, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), is "one of the only legitimate competitors of Windows in the enterprise," wrote Technology Business Research (TBR) analysts Andrew Smith and Geoff Woollacott in a June 2015 report (available here with registration). In its fiscal year 2012, Red Hat reported total revenue of $1.13 billion, becoming the first open source company to crack the billion-dollar-mark. In a blog post at the time, Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, attributed Red Hat's success to its participation in the "virtuous cycle" that the open source ecosystem encourages:

Since Linux has grown, so have the benefits Red Hat receives (and gives to others). When Facebook contributes code to make their datacenters more efficient, Red Hat benefits; when Red Hat contributes code to improve file systems, mobile device makers benefit; when mobile device makers contribute code to improve power consumption, super computer cooling costs go down; when super computer users contribute code to make Linux faster, Wall St. benefits with faster trading systems -- and so on and so forth.

For open source Windows, Microsoft could decide to adopt something similar to Red Hat's model for RHEL. RHEL is open source-developed code that's sold under Red Hat branding with a subscription plan. While the underlying code is freely available as open source, a subscription to the Red Hat-certified platform includes important add-ons such as access to security patches and product updates, as well as technical assistance. More than its actual offerings, this subscription model is "one of Red Hat's greatest strengths," according to TBR's analysis, and the key to propelling the company to a projected $2 billion in revenue as it transitions from a client-server-focused business to a cloud one.

"Red Hat operates its subscription business at 94 percent gross margin, which we believe illustrates the established, repeatable nature of its business model and the extremely low cost of services associated with its infrastructure business," Smith and Woollacott wrote.

There are other business models that Microsoft could follow: Microsoft could distribute a consumer-edition Windows as a truly open source product while reserving a proprietary and more feature-heavy version for paying enterprise customers. Or Microsoft could adopt a "freemium" model -- as it already does to a degree with its mobile Office apps -- in which the base Windows product is free but additional proprietary features are for-pay.

The Security and Profitability Implications
The impact of open sourcing Windows would be mixed for Microsoft, to put it lightly.

Consider product security. In discussions about the security of open source code as compared to proprietary code, the adage that invariably gets trotted out is: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." The implication is that open source code, because it is exposed to more eyeballs, is ultimately more secure than proprietary source code. That seems to be supported by the most recent "Open Source Report" by Coverity Inc., a provider of software testing and code analysis solutions. The report, published in July 2015, found that proprietary source code has a higher "defect density" than open source code. (Coverity analyzed more than 10 billion lines of open source code in addition to code from commercial products, calculating defect density based on the "number of defects per 1,000 lines of code.")

In reality, though, that adage is not always a hard-and-fast rule; last year's "Heartbleed" bug, which attacked Internet users through a vulnerability in the OpenSSL protocol, is one high-profile example of why it's not. On the other hand, it's also not necessarily true that proprietary code, because it is exposed only to vetted eyeballs, is more secure; Microsoft would never have had any need for its "Patch Tuesday" releases otherwise.

Compliance is another gray area when it comes to open source. In its report, Coverity found that code from commercial software was more likely to be compliant with security standards, such as the OWASP Top 10, than code from open source projects.

"Beyond Red Hat the effort [to commercialize open source] has largely been a failure from a business standpoint."

Peter Levine, General Partner, Andreessen Horowitz

In general, though, the security community's attitude is more favorable toward open source code than it is toward proprietary code, especially in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks concerning government spying programs. Microsoft was among the tech heavyweights that came under fire for reportedly participating in the National Security Agency's data-collection program dubbed PRISM, and complying with the agency to expose the private data of Microsoft cloud customers without subpoena. If Microsoft were to ever open source Windows, it could spur a detente in its relationship with security pros.

Besides security, however, there's also the issue of how profitable open source is -- or isn't. Aside from Red Hat, there are very few billion-dollar open source companies. As Peter Levine, former CEO of XenSource and current partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, wrote in a blog post, "Why There Will Never Be Another Red Hat: The Economics of Open Source":

[B]eyond Red Hat the effort [to commercialize open source] has largely been a failure from a business standpoint. Consider that the "support" model has been around for 20 years, and other than Red Hat there are no other public standalone companies that have been able to offer an alternative to their proprietary counterpart. When you compare the market cap and revenue of Red Hat to Microsoft or Amazon or Oracle, even Red Hat starts to look like a lukewarm success. The overwhelming success of Linux is disproportionate to the performance of Red Hat. Great for open source, a little disappointing for Red Hat.

By contrast, although Windows revenue has declined from its historic highs, it still rakes in a good deal of money for Microsoft; the company's "Commercial Licensing" reporting segment, which includes volume licensing sales of Windows, recorded $10.5 billion in revenue for Q4, while "Devices and Consumer Licensing," which includes all non-volume-licensing sales of Windows, recorded $3.2 billion in revenue.

Microsoft clearly recognizes the necessity of incorporating open source into its strategy, especially as a way of adapting to an increasingly hybrid world. At one point during the ChefConf panel, Russinovich asked the audience to indicate, through a show of hands, which of them were "pure Windows-only" shops. Just two people raised their hands. "That's the reality we live in today," Russinovich said. Microsoft has seen a growing number of its traditional enterprise customers using open source technologies "and we need to meet them where they are," Russinovich said.

He also described the company's recent embrace of open source as a way "to bring people onto our platform." However, when asked whether Microsoft is hamstrung by the fact that Windows is not (yet) open source, Russinovich waffled a bit.

"We've got a huge install base that's using Windows and we want to continue to make them successful on Windows. But again, we see customers that are making other choices, that want to use other technologies. And so Windows is just going to compete on its own merits with these other things and we're going to make it possible for customers to use whatever technologies they want to use," he answered. "It's really a matter of offering the customer the choice."

What it boils down to is that the question of whether to open source Windows is, in Russinovich's words, "on the table." And it might be there for a long time.