Windows Autopsy

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Did you ever wonder what the inside of Bill Gates' head looks like?

Me neither!

But evidently the attorneys general from 10 states (including the District of Columbia) want to take a peek. They are the remaining plaintiffs in the Microsoft antitrust case that began during the Clinton administration, and they want to look at the Windows source code. Last Tuesday, these states said they need to see the source code of the Microsoft Windows operating system so they can verify the company's claim that it is not technically feasible for the company to offer a stripped-down version of Windows.

Windows to Be Strip-Searched

Why do they want a stripped-down version of Windows?

The plaintiffs want to force Microsoft to create a smaller, public-domain version of the Windows operating system as a remedy for Microsoft's past illegal actions. With a version in the public domain, they reason, the likelihood of future illegal, monopolistic actions by Microsoft will be diminished. They also want the court to appoint an expert to evaluate the operating system code, to verify the feasibility of such a project.

At this writing, the court of U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has yet to rule on this demand.

Microsoft Holds Out to Keep Its Secrets

Of course, Microsoft's lawyers are totally opposed to such an idea, and who can blame them? First of all, Microsoft says that it can't create a stripped-down version, that the design features of the Windows operating system are so heavily integrated that it would be impossible to separate out a smaller functioning version. Second, by exposing the source code, Microsoft would, in essence, be giving away its trade secrets. And who knows what other anti-competitive techniques are imbedded within the millions of lines of code? Those secrets, in and of themselves, could open Microsoft to even further litigation.

Yet that's exactly the reason the attorneys general want the code evaluated: "Microsoft cannot base its defense on the design of its source code and simultaneously deny the litigating states the opportunity to test those arguments by interrogating the code."

Microsoft Developers Start Housecleaning

Yet, as unctuous as Windows (or Gates, for that matter) may be, putting the operating system under the knife to expose all the faults and secrets seems somewhat extreme. I mean, we know Windows is filled with junky code, security holes that you can drive a truck through, and other problems that make us reboot every couple of hours. But do we really have to open it up and expose it to the light of day? Aren't there some messes that are better left buried in closets and behind the doors of dormitory bedrooms?

Maybe that's what was on Microsoft's mind earlier this month: Two weeks ago, it announced it was temporarily halting the development of new code so that its developers could go back and check for security holes in the code they'd already written. According to reports, each division has stopped writing new code for about one month to perform security checks.

But is it really security holes they're plugging? Or have they set out to do a bit of legal housecleaning and window dressing in preparation for the antitrust inquisition? After all, why not clean up a few anti-competitive shenanigans while they're at it--such as subroutines that prevent certain competitors' products from running efficiently on the Windows desktop? Hey! I'm not saying they ever did that, but if they did, wouldn't it be a great time to sort of "plug" those security holes?

"Interrogating the Code"? Linux Is Already There!

One imagines a ghastly image: Bill Gates, dressed in a hospital gown, laid out on an operating table, his skull neatly opened with saw and scalpel, with lawyers picking over him with magnifying glasses and tweezers while legions of hackers take copious notes. Interrogating the code, indeed! "Mr. Gates, what exactly were you thinking when you decided to cross over to the dark side?"

Meanwhile, IBM opens its PartnerWorld extravaganza this week in San Francisco, and keeping its operating system code a secret is the last thing on its mind. Why? Because IBM has embraced Linux and the open-source movement, essentially banishing the bugaboo of "proprietary operating systems" once and for all. Versions of Linux are now running across IBM's entire spectrum of servers, and IBM wants everyone to know it. In fact, if IBM can change the tone of the operating system debate from "proprietary" to "open," it can continue to gain mind share while it solidifies and expands its server market share.

Microsoft Antitrust: Does It Really Matter Anymore?

The antitrust case between Microsoft and the remaining plaintiffs is expected to continue for many months to come, but the discovery period for new evidence is scheduled to end on February 22. What exactly will be discovered inside the mind of Microsoft will be perhaps the most interesting part of the case. What Microsoft is able to protect from the inquisition may define the future of its Windows operating system.

What is already clear is that Microsoft will not readily give up its secrets. But as the momentum continues to build for the open Linux systems, the importance of those secrets--and what exactly goes on inside of Microsoft's mind--may prove to be less important than we once thought.

By the time it's all over, we may all be running Linux anyway.

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MCMagOnline. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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