Microsoft Tries to Appease EU with Windows Server Source Code Release
Published: February 1, 2006
by Alex Woodie
Microsoft unveiled a plan last week to distribute the source code for its Windows Server operating system to third-party software vendors as part of its attempt to abide by the European Commission's 2004 antitrust ruling. However, it is unclear whether the distribution of the Windows source code will actually help the software giant in the eyes of European regulators, which warned Microsoft that just publishing the source code was not enough. In fact, it might actually further complicate matters.
In addition to distributing a version of Windows that did not include an embedded version of Windows Media Player, the European Commission's 2004 court ruling ordered Microsoft to assist third-party software developers in the creation of new applications that correctly implemented the so-called "communications protocols" for the Windows Server operating system.
In response to this ruling, Microsoft published a 12,000-page document describing the protocols and how to implement them, and last month it offered developers up to 500 hours of free technical support to answer any questions they had about implementing the protocols.
However, these steps by Microsoft did not go far enough. On December 22, the European Commission published a "Statement of Objections," which asserted that Microsoft's technical documentation was insufficient in helping developers to successfully use the protocols.
What's more, the European Commission warned Microsoft, in the same December 22 document, that the matter would not be solved by publishing all of the source code. According to The Wall Street Journal, which obtained a copy of the confidential document, the document stated: "It must be underlined that it is not necessary to reveal the source code."
Despite the warning, Microsoft opted to go ahead with its plan for publishing the Windows Server source code anyway.
In a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith described how publishing the source code would "put to rest" the matter of making it easier for competitors to write server software for Windows, and thereby comply with the 2004 ruling.
"We're not obligated to license their source code. But one thing is perfectly clear, if you want to understand these communications protocols, the source code is the ultimate documentation. It is the DNA of the Windows Server operating system," Smith said. "And if you have access to that source code as a developer . . . you can study the way in which we have implemented these specifications in our source code and use that to answer any remaining questions or clear up any remaining uncertainty."
Microsoft's move is historic in some respects. It is the first time it has pledged to share the code with companies that compete directly with Microsoft, although it only applies to the European market. Microsoft has a Windows source code sharing program for companies and other organizations in the United States, but it is limited to the desktop version of Windows, not the version that runs on servers.
While Microsoft is characterizing its plan to share the Windows source code as a good-faith attempt to comply with the commission's rulings, people in the IT industry are questioning Microsoft's motives. Some industry observers have speculated that viewing Windows Server source code could actually put Microsoft competitors in a legal jam involving the potential for future copyright infringements, and that this "what if" situation would prevent them from taking part in any source-code viewing program.
"Neither the Commission nor any of the programmers I've talked to . . . have ever said they even need or even want to see your source code," said a reporter during the Q&A session at the Brussels press conference. "Can you explain then how revealing the source code is so important to ending the problems here?"
Smith responded to the reporter's question by saying that the 12,000 pages of technical documentation and 500 hours of assistance should have been enough.
"I actually think that we have already done what we were obligated to do," he said. "I agree with you," he went on, "that it would be unusual to expect a developer to go to the source code first, but it absolutely is the documentation of best resort if one is confused and is trying to see how a particular protocol specification might be implemented."
The European Commission would agree with Smith that the 12,000 pages of technical documentation could be a little confusing. The person called upon to check the veracity and thoroughness of the documentation, a British consultant named Neil Barrett, reportedly had difficulties accomplishing simple programming tasks using the protocols.
According to The Wall Street Journal article, Barrett described Microsoft's instructions as "totally unusable," and said the software giant never defined terms such as "context handles" and "network objects." Barrett, who was selected from a list of consultants approved by Microsoft, also cited a lack of an index, illustrations, and proper headings in the documentation, and also questions why several hundred pages were devoted to handling computer errors without ever describing how the errors occur in the first place, the newspaper reported.
Microsoft faces fines of up to €2 million per day, or about $2.4 million, for failure to comply with the European Commission's March 2004 ruling (for more on that ruling, see "Microsoft Holds Its Ground as EU Imposes $613 Million Fine, Sanctions").
Those fines could be imposed by late March. In the meantime, Microsoft is preparing its response to the commission's December Statement of Objections, which is due February 15.