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Few care to share when it comes to Microsoft's code

Microsoft has made its prized Windows source code available to a greater number of customers under its Shared Source Initiative. So why are so few taking the software maker up on its offer?

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Microsoft has slowly broadened the scope of its Shared Source Initiative since the program was launched several years ago, but only a tiny percentage of the company's enterprise customers who are eligible to view the code actually elect to do so.

The initiative

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trickles out Windows code to its customers and partners -- most recently releasing code for a .NET Web-based authoring tool called Wiki -- and offering its government licensees access to Office source code. Though there are a few exceptions, partners and foreign governments are by far the biggest participants in the program, not IT shops. Security is most often cited as the reason for an interest in seeing Microsoft's source code.

Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative, said there are more than 1,500 enterprises eligible to view the source code, but only 40 of them have signed up for the program, which is free. "The reality is, we've had conversations with over 1,000 customers, and they say, 'thank you for the offer,'" Matusow said. "[They say] 'I want you to do [this work], but we like knowing that the code is there if we need it.'"

Analysts are hardly surprised that so few customers take advantage of viewing Windows source code. "Why do you buy commercial software anyway?" said Al Gillen, research director of system software at International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass. "Do you want to take your car apart to find out why the engine doesn't get more miles per gallon?"

Code review a distraction from core businesses

It is true that having the source code can help customers improve on some functions. Matusow

We do development work, but we stop at the API level of the operating system.

Frank Hood, VP, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc.

points to companies such as UBS Warburg LLC, which has tweaked source code for customer applications used in financial transactions. But as IDC's Gillen said, most companies -- even those with in-house developers -- don't want to take on these sorts of projects.

"We do development work, but we stop at the API level of the operating system," said Frank Hood, vice president of operations at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Inc., in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Our business is making doughnuts."

Matusow said Microsoft focuses on four areas when it decided what code to offer customers: support for existing customers, opportunities for new development, educational opportunities and research and partner opportunities.

By using the code, customers might ideally develop better custom applications, improve their internal troubleshooting, self-support and security audits. "Having source code isn't a panacea, but if you are building a custom application on top of Windows and you need to look at that interface, it can be beneficial," Matusow said.

Just 1% tweak the code

In a Microsoft survey of its customers, 60% to 70% of respondents said it is critical to access source code, but fewer than 5% said they would actually look at the code, and only 1% would modify it. The fact that customers can see the code increases their trust, and they derive comfort knowing that third-party companies they lean on for services can see the code, Matusow said.

When a customer becomes a code licensee, they don't get everything -- because Microsoft doesn't release everything. It holds back all third-party code that is part of the software, as well as certain "high-value" intellectual property that it chooses not to share, Matusow said. The activation feature in Windows is one example of code that is withheld. There is also some cryptographic code that is held back due to export restrictions of the U.S. government.

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