Open-Source Windows

In my previous post, I wrote about how Microsoft’s attitude toward open-source software has evolved, encouragingly, from outright hostility to cordial coexistence, and about how the company might maintain and extend its platform leadership position by moving beyond simple tolerance to aggressive adoption of open source.

Obviously, Microsoft isn’t getting knocked off its perch any time soon–Windows has burrowed deeply enough into our computing landscape that Microsoft could probably switch off its development engines and coast on its momentum for another 15 years or so.

However, there’s no question that Microsoft faces some very real challenges to its platform throne, the most daunting of which is the Web, where a seemingly omnipresent Google is working on relocating computing’s center of gravity toward the browser and away from Windows or any other particular operating system platform.

It’s easy to see how the shift toward the Web has buoyed Microsoft’s smaller rivals, including an ascendant Apple that’s a consumer electronics-based charge on computing, and an assortment of Linuxes that are oozing into all manner of new computing products.

One of the interesting aspects of Google’s platform strategy is the idea that what’s good for the Web is good for Google, and the company puts this philosophy into practice through a range of initiatives aimed at expanding and bolstering the Web, including investments in ventures such as Meraki and Clearwire, lobbying efforts around U.S. wireless spectrum allocation, and cold hard code such as its innovative, open-source Google Chrome browser.

Returning to Microsoft and its own platform stronghold, it’s clear that what’s good for Windows is good for Microsoft. Though it may sound crazy, I contend that the best move Microsoft could make to broaden the reach and strengthen the core of the Windows platform would be to release the operating system as open source.

Releasing Windows under an open-source license would benefit the platform in two major ways. First, an open-source Windows could be had for free, which would mean more legitimate Windows seats around the world and fewer barriers to upgrading to the latest version of the operating system. The result would be a larger and more modern network of Windows nodes at which ISVs could target sales of their Windows applications.

Second, a move to open-source Windows would inject an enormous amount of vitality and innovation into the platform, as the legions of user organizations, vendors and developers now invested in Windows could take the platform in new directions, the way that a much smaller community of stakeholders now does–to great effect–in the Linux community.

It’s fair to ask how, if Windows could be had for free, Microsoft would make money. For starters, I’m not suggesting that Microsoft open-source 100 percent of what it now calls Windows. Rather, Microsoft could divide Windows into its separate operating systems and bundled application elements, restrict its open-sourcing efforts to the operating system side of the equation, and sell client and server distributions of Windows with proprietary Microsoft applications layered atop the open-source platform base.

This sort of division would help preserve existing Windows sales among customers who find value in Windows’ current platform-plus-bundled-applications incarnations, while freeing Windows to wriggle into the cracks between business models that only Linux can now reach.

As matters now stand, you can build and run a business on Windows, but there’s a definite floor and ceiling to the range of businesses where Windows fits best. The very smallest startups–the garage guys–and very largest operations–the Googles and Facebooks–are driven, without fail, to choose the low-friction licensing and development flexibility of open-source platforms, and I can’t see this trend changing.

Open-sourcing Windows would be no small technical feat, and for Microsoft, the philosophical barriers to the move might prove difficult to surmount. It may seem like a gamble, but I say going all in with an open-source Windows is just the ticket to keep the platform relevant and alive for years to come.

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