Microsoft Corp. announced this week it is making the programming code for its Office 2003 software suite available to government agencies around the globe, a move partly aimed at allowing them to inspect the product for flaws and security problems.
Though Microsoft usually guards such software coding tightly, the step is an extension of an initiative the company began in January 2003, giving about 60 governments access to the inner workings of the Windows operating system. This is the first time the software giant has shared the source code for Office, which includes the Word text processing, Excel spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentation programs.
Jason Matusow, director of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative, said yesterday that the move was taken to increase "transparency and trust" in Microsoft's products. Government officials have sought greater access to the program's technical details in recent years to ensure the software is compatible with other applications and is hiding no obvious security flaws. Some officials also want a better understanding of how the software works to preserve documents for the future, when current programs become obsolete.
Eric S. Raymond, an activist in the open-source software community, said pressure likely was building on Microsoft to reveal its code as a result of Internet-borne computer security scares that have underscored flaws in Microsoft products.
"You can bet they were dragged to this kicking and screaming," he said. "Microsoft's official line has always been that Microsoft Office is the most valuable intellectual property in the world and that they would never disclose it."
The move by Microsoft is also the company's latest response to the growing popularity of "open-source" software such as the Linux operating system, in which users are given rights to read, distribute and alter the source code for a piece of software as they wish.
Microsoft has dubbed its approach "shared source." While government clients will be allowed to examine the source coding for Office, they will not be allowed to modify it. "Shared source is all about learning from the open-source movement and applying it to our business model," Matusow said.
Though Microsoft's Office is, by far, the dominant software in its category, analysts say there has been increased interest from governments around the world in competing products such as OpenOffice, a free productivity suite, and StarOffice, an enhancement of OpenOffice sold by Sun Microsystems Inc. -- two programs that have been downloaded about 40 million times since 2000.
"The primary factor is that of control," Manish Punjabi, marketing manager for StarOffice at Sun Microsystems, said of the software's appeal to some government customers. "By virtue of being open-source, the product and its direction are no longer controlled by a single company."
When Microsoft began allowing governments to inspect its code in 2003, under an effort it called the Government Security Program, the company identified 60 countries it deemed as having sufficient intellectual property protection to keep the source code from leaking into the public domain. About half the countries on that list -- including Australia, Britain, China, Norway, Russia and Spain -- have taken Microsoft up on its offer to study the programming inside Windows. Britain will be the first to examine Office.