Once upon a time not so very long ago, Microsoft was widely considered the very antithesis of open-source software. Steve Ballmer called Linux “a cancer,” and Bill Gates shared similar views about the open-source philosophy in general.
Today, it’s a different world. CEO Satya Nadella has openly declared a new love for Linux. Microsoft has open-sourced its .NET framework for developers, and Linux is now welcome on its Azure cloud computing service. Through a new focus on open access, the company is increasingly offering its products to users of competing platforms.
Could an open-source Windows be in the cards?
Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich apparently thinks it could. “It’s definitely possible,” Russinovich reportedly told an audience at the ChefCon conference in Santa Clara this week. “It’s a new Microsoft.”
Microsoft itself isn’t giving anything away. “Microsoft has not made any open-source policy or business-model changes for Windows,” a company representative said via email on Friday.
Still, that such a possibility could be seriously discussed in a public forum is a testament to how much has changed in the software world.
“Open source has gone from being a threat for my generation of executives to an asset for the next generation over the last decade and a half,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group.
As that older generation gradually retires, today’s executives increasingly share that more positive view, he said.
Another factor is Microsoft’s need to make Windows competitive with Android—an area where “being open source is a requirement,” Enderle said.
Put it all together, and a change in Microsoft leadership combined with a shifting competitive landscape is clearly forcing a new look at how to price, deliver and support Windows, he added. “This is just one aspect of what we’ll likely see is the most significant change to this product yet made.”
Of course, simply open-sourcing a piece of software is not in and of itself the solution to making a product more competitive, noted Al Gillen, a program vice president with IDC.
“To successfully move proprietary code into the open community means more than just posting the code in the public sector,” Gillen said.” You need a community to rally around the product, to contribute development effort and to help drive the technology forward.”
Organizations also need to step forward to offer commercial support for the open-source parts, and “the prospect of competing with a differentiated support offering becomes hard,” he added.
Microsoft already makes Windows free for small form-factor devices, so if Windows were to be open-sourced, it would most likely begin at that small-device level—the phones and small tablets where Microsoft already faces monetization challenges, Gillen said.
Even at the high end, however, as Microsoft moves its customers to a service model through Azure, it becomes less important to monetize the Windows software directly, Gillen noted.
“Microsoft’s revenue increasingly comes from the compute services rather than licensing software, and by selling a wide collection of related services such as Office 365, OneDrive, Bing, etc.,” he said. “So would it make sense to open-source Windows in, maybe, 10 years? Quite possibly.”