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Microsoft's Open Sesame Moment

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2004; 10:17 AM

When you're a company under the watchful eye of governments around the globe for being the 800-pound gorilla of the computer industry, it helps to play nice.

That's just what Microsoft Corp. is doing, with a friendly plan to expand its source-code sharing program with governments by adding its Office 2003 software to the mix. The move, however, is more importantly part of Microsoft's game plan to turn government officials away from the rising tide of open-source software. Officials in Brazil, Germany and other spots are embracing freely shared software as a cheaper option to the Windows operating system. Microsoft's operating system still powers more than 90 percent of the worlds' computers, but the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is taking the open-source threat seriously.

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"The addition of Office to the program comes as Microsoft is trying to tighten relations with governments and dissuade them from adopting Linux and other open-source software, which is made by a loosely knit community of programmers and is built on code that can be freely modified," the Wall Street Journal said in its coverage. More on this theme, from the Associated Press: "Microsoft has launched a number of efforts in recent years to give governments and certain private groups access to some source code. The moves come as an increasing number of governments and companies are looking at switching to 'open source' alternatives such as Linux."

The Financial Times said the source-code giveaway is a response "to the competitive threat of cheaper open source software by announcing that it is sharing the source code of its Microsoft Office productivity suite with governments round the world." More from the FT: "Significantly, Microsoft has chosen to release details of the decision to share its source code from the company's European headquarters in Paris, France. European governments had been suspicious that the inner code of the U.S. company's products could offer the U.S. government back-door access to their systems. Europe is proving receptive to open-source software solutions based on the rival Linux operating system, in which code can be easily reviewed and changed and the basic software is free. Open-source productivity suites such as OpenOffice are also gaining acceptance and the release of the Microsoft Office code will be viewed as a response to that commercial threat." And CNET's News.com also cut to the chase regarding the deeper meaning of Microsoft's code-sharing push: "Its stated goals include allowing government IT workers to conduct more thorough security audits and to build custom applications on top of Microsoft products. But the move was also widely seen as an attempt to counter growing government interest in open-source software, which has been given preferential status by numerous government entities."
The Wall Street Journal: Microsoft to Let Governments Access Code for Office 2003 (Subscription required)
The Associated Press via washingtonpost.com: Microsoft Expands Sharing of Source Code (Registration required)
The Financial Times: Microsoft to Share Office Source Code
CNET's News.com: Microsoft Lets Governments Into Office

Microsoft did not mention the L-word in announcing the expanded plan yesterday and chose to emphasize its collaboration with governments. "Open source is a factor, but this is in response to those long-term discussions around transparency," Jason Matusow of Microsoft's shared-source program told the AP.

The government of Britain is the first to sign on to view Office's source code. "The release of this source code will help the U.K. Government understand the security implications of the Office productivity suite and aid secure deployment in a wide range of scenarios," Steve Marsh, director of the Central Sponsor for Information Assurance in the Cabinet Office, said in a statement put out by Microsoft.

The FT said more than 30 countries have signed agreements to tap into the code, about half of the number of countries eligible to sign up. In the program, "national agencies responsible for government security are given access to the code and Microsoft offers visits to its headquarters in Redmond."

The Wall Street Journal said security concerns are a major part of the reason for the ramped-up program. "The move, announced yesterday, is the second major step Microsoft has taken to give governments more access to the closely held computer code used to make its most important software. Government experts say being able to see the technical underpinnings of Microsoft software can help them find possible flaws and security problems in the programs," the paper reported. Microsoft's source-coding sharing program, launched last year, "was the first official move by Microsoft to give governments a peek at the code. China, Russia, the United Kingdom and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are among those that have signed up for the initiative. ... The program in part is a security blanket for government agencies worried that Microsoft products have ways for the company or the U.S. government to view sensitive data on computers around the world. Access to the code should prove that such 'back doors' don't exist, Microsoft executives say."

The Associated Press explained more about what Microsoft is offering governments as a lure to use its products. "Beginning Monday, Microsoft will offer more than 60 governments and international organizations the option of viewing the proprietary source code for the latest version of its ubiquitous Office software, including the Outlook e-mail program, Microsoft Word and Excel spreadsheet application." Reuters had more details on the program. "The Linux software system, which is now a major competitor to Windows and other Microsoft products, and its source code are freely available to anyone under an open source license that guarantees that the data will always be shared. Microsoft launched an initiative a few years ago to share more of its software code with other technology companies, and later expanded that to include governments."
Reuters: Microsoft to Share Office Source Code

More Windows Washing

Microsoft has good reason to be expanding its efforts to bolster the security of its products and giving governments an inside look at what's under the hood of the software. A new report shows that attacks against Windows-based PCs are growing in number. "A survey of Internet vulnerabilities to be released Monday shows a sharp jump in attacks on Windows-based personal computers during the first six months of 2004, along with a marked increase in commercially motivated threats," the New York Times reported, noting the results come from data from Symantec. "The Internet Security Threat Report says that from Jan. 1 to June 30 there were at least 1,237 newly discovered software vulnerabilities, or flaws that could compromise security. That translates into an average of 48 new vulnerabilities a week."
The New York Times: Attacks on Windows PCs Grew in First Half of 2004 (Registration required)

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