Is Open-Source Windows REALLY A Possibility?

Image Credit: m01229
Is Open-Source Windows REALLY A Possibility?
Image Credit: m01229

Image Credit: m01229

As I’m certain you’ve all heard by now, Microsoft intends to make Windows 10,  the next iteration of its Windows Operating System, freely available to all users.  Pretty big news, though it certainly didn’t come as any surprise to those familiar with the tech industry. The fact is that consumer expectations have changed – and Microsoft’s paid upgrades are simply a relic of an older time.

“If Microsoft wants consumers to update and keep up to date, it really means that Microsoft is going to have to give those consumers updates for free,” explained Gartner’s Michael Silver to Computer World. “There’s really no other way to do it. A consumer isn’t going to give Microsoft a credit card and say ‘charge me for a new release when it comes out.”

This announcement caused a pretty significant brouhaha in both the manufacturing space and enterprise. Hardware manufacturers that typically rely on new operating system releases for sales are left in the lurch, and businesses that don’t want the upgrade could essentially be told “too bad, so sad.” That last statement may seem rather extreme at first glance, but it’s not so outlandish if you stop to think about it.

Especially when you take into account the fact that Microsoft is rather forcibly pitching Windows 10 to both Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 PCs (and the fact that it’s only free for the first year).

Huge though it may be, that news isn’t what we’re here to discuss today. Instead, we’re more interested in something else that came out of Microsoft recently. Something a lot more interesting, actually.

The possibility that Windows might eventually become open source.

This isn’t just some rumor being peddled by a tipster on an Internet forum, nor does it stem from one of those oft-cited ‘anonymous insiders’ that every publication seems so fond of. In this case, the news comes straight from one of Microsoft’s top engineers – none other than Mark Russinovich. Those of you that don’t know who that is…well, you probably should.

“He helped build Windows,” explains Wired’s Mike Kane, “and he carries one of the most respected titles in the world’s largest software company: Microsoft Technical Fellow.”

Speaking at tech conference ChefConf last month, Russinovich himself responded with a definite ‘maybe’ to the question of an open-source Windows OS.

That answer isn’t terribly surprising, in hindsight. Microsoft is well aware of the fact that it’s not necessarily well-liked by sysadmins and other technical professionals. It knows full-well that its decision to keep the source code of Windows under wraps has earned it no friends in the open-source community – just as it knows full well that open-source is becoming more and more important in enterprise with each passing day.

The thing is, this isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. It took Microsoft several decades to even consider making Windows freely available. That it might take things a step further and release proprietary code to the masses seems at this point a near-impossibility.

There are a few reasons for this.

There’s No Community Yet

The most powerful element of open-source isn’t simply the fact that the code is freely available – it’s the fact that there’s a thriving community of developers willing to collaborate on that code. You can’t throw a rock on a tech forum without finding a ton of people who know their way around Linux. The fact is that even if Microsoft releases the source code for Windows, there aren’t many people around who care enough to start tinkering with it.

Microsoft Has A Branding Problem Where Open Source Is Concerned

Speaking of Linux, I doubt you’ll find anyone who’ll try to argue that it isn’t the reigning king of open source – nor will you find many who’ll try to say one of its many distros aren’t the best-suited for administrators. The people in enterprise tech like Linux. Windows…not so much.

Microsoft’s relationship with most sysadmins is bitter at best, outright adversarial at worst. I’m sure many of you in our audience have at least a few horror stories of wrestling with outdated legacy systems (which probably ran Windows XP). And the fact is that when you think of Windows, that’s what you’re going to be thinking of – not that Windows is open-source in some hypothetical future.

Microsoft’s Roadmap Still Speaks Of Revenue And Control

As noted by PC World’s Chris Hoffman, Microsoft isn’t ready to give up the goat on its operating system quite yet. Sure, they plan to make the upgrade to Windows 10 free for consumers in the near future…but what about after that? More importantly, what about enterprises?

“Windows 10 isn’t actually free – it’s just a free upgrade for the first year for existing Windows 7 and 8 consumer users,” explains Hoffman. “It’s not free for consumers after that, it’s not free for DIY system builders, and it’s not free for businesses. Microsoft is still betting on Windows licensing revenue.”

“Worse yet for Microsoft, competing companies could take Windows and use it to make a competing operating system,” he continues. “Amazon’s Fire OS is based on Android with Google’s services stripped out and Amazon’s included. Imagine a Fire OS version of Windows, one that ran all the Windows software you might want, but had Amazon’s—or another companies—services integrated into it. This open-sourcing would actually hurt Microsoft’s bid to become a services company.”

Windows Is Ultimately Yesterday’s News

There’s one final reason an open-source Windows probably isn’t in our future – and why, even if it is, it really won’t matter. Mobile. The fact is that desktop PCs are becoming less and less a part of enterprise, replaced by mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

Operating systems like Windows, in other words, are slowly starting to become obsolete.

“Were Microsoft to open-source desktop Windows, no one would care,” attests ReadWrite’s Matt Asay.“That ship has sailed. As the world becomes more mobile, open sourcing yesterday’s hegemon is interesting but insufficient to curry developer favor.”

Closing Thoughts

It’s nice to wonder what might happen if Microsoft were to finally step back and make Windows open-source. It’s nice to dream that one day, power users might have total freedom to code their own incredible additions to Microsoft’s operating system. That’s all ultimately wishful thinking, though.

Thanks to market conditions, competition, and Microsoft’s own internal culture, an open-source OS probably isn’t in the cards for the company anytime soon.

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