Microsoft opens source code to govts




SEATTLE: In an unprecedented move, Microsoft said on Tuesday that it would open its source code -- the software giant's closely guarded blueprints for programs -- to governments and international organizations worldwide.

Under the initiative, called the Government Security Program, the world's largest software maker said governments and their agencies would be able to examine its source code to enhance the security of their software, used for tasks such as tracking personal data, taxes and ensuring national security.

The move is aimed at strengthening Microsoft's position in government markets where it is already the largest or second-largest government supplier of software.

"We have a business interest in having people feel completely comfortable with our software, whether it is mission critical or not," Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Technology Officer, said.

The NATO defense alliance, as well as Russia, have already agreed to participate in the program, and discussions with more than 60 other governments and agencies are being held, Mundie said, adding that any cooperation with Microsoft would be disclosed at the discretion of each government agency.

Microsoft is facing pressure from free software, which is becoming ever more tempting to governments worldwide as an alternative to costly proprietary software from Microsoft and other companies.

Since free software, such as Linux, is "open source" and by definition available for close scrutiny, its advocates argue that it is inherently more secure.

Last June, Microsoft rival International Business Machines signed a deal with the German government to provide Linux-based systems to some agencies.

Open source software is also appealing to some governments and companies because it is free, and can be copied and modified unlike Microsoft's Windows and its other programs.

"They're trying to block the entry of competing platforms by these governments," said Rob Enderle of Giga Information Group.

"If they can get governments to feel comfortable with their software, then they can effectively hold off the influx of those competing platforms. It can pretty much lock you in as a standard."

Ongoing campaign

Up to now, many governments developed their own software to store information and run their agencies, but the mounting complexity and cost has pushed them toward off-the-shelf programs.

To woo governments, Microsoft said it will make its source code available to government agencies over the Internet, provided they do not disclose that code. They will also be required to sign contracts, but will not have to pay for access.

Opening its software blueprints is not a new idea from Microsoft, but the scope of the government disclosure is.

In 2000, Microsoft began its Shared Source Initiative to open its source code to other companies as well as research and educational institutions.

The program, which was later expanded to include a wider range of technology companies, allows Microsoft's corporate partners to refer to Windows code, but not change and redistribute it.

"We also plan to provide source access, technical documentation and resources that we generally have never made available before," said Mundie.

Microsoft said it will also make its software engineers available at its Redmond, Washington headquarters for consultations with government representatives.

But questions will always remain over the new initiative because governments have no way of being sure that the source code they see is the blueprint used to run software, said Dan Kusnetzky, Vice President of systems software at Framingham, Massachusetts-based research firm International Data Corp.

That's because source code is compiled, or turned into electronic language that only machines can understand. Inner workings of compiled programs are extremely difficult to decipher without access to the underlying code, he said.

Microsoft, which has gotten mixed reviews for its efforts to ensure security, has also been trying hard to convince existing and potential customers that its software is more trustworthy.

Early in 2002, Microsoft's co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates announced a company-wide initiative to improve the security of Microsoft's products.