15 January 2003 Software giant Microsoft has said it will release the source code of its Windows operating systems to governments for the first time.
The move is an attempt by the company to address security concerns over Windows and the increasing threat posed by its open source rival Linux. Microsoft is hoping that it will help stem the erosion of its position in the government sector following a string of defections to open source alternatives.
The initiative, called the Government Security Program (GSP), will enable government bodies to make limited modifications to Windows, primarily to add their own encryption technologies.
Microsoft will provide the source code free of charge for its Windows XP, Windows 2000 and the forthcoming Windows 2003 Server operating systems, as well as Windows CE, which is used in mobile devices. Governments will get access to the current versions, beta releases and service packs.
Russia and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) have already signed up to the initiative. Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief technical officer of advance strategies and policies, said that eligible nations do not need to be customers or use certain Microsoft products to participate in the scheme.
The announcement came as a surprise after Microsoft chairman Bill Gates last year described the Windows code as the company’s most critical intellectual property. In addition, during the five-year long antitrust trial, Gates also repeatedly resisted demands from rival vendors to share its source code.
Microsoft admitted that the initiative was in response to demands from national governments that want access to software source code in order to make their computing environments more secure. For example, the US National Security Agency developed last year, what it claims, was a secure version of Linux and posted the code on its web site for anyone to download.
However, the initiative will not address increasing concerns among national governments over the hefty cost of purchasing Microsoft software when Linux and open source office application suites can be freely downloaded over the Internet.
Analyst company Meta Group said that the growing popularity of Linux will eventually force Microsoft to lower its prices and the way its sells its software.
Meta added that Linux currently accounts for between 15% and 20% of new server operating system shipments, but by 2006 or 2007 Linux running on Intel microprocessors – a combination referred to as “Lintel” – would rise to 45%.