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Don't hold your breath: Why Windows won't be open-source any time soon

Chris Hoffman | April 9, 2015
Windows going open-source is 'definitely possible,' a senior Microsoft executive says--but don't hold your breath.

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Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich recently caused a stir by telling a crowd of geeks at ChefConf that an open-source Windows "is definitely possible."

The fact that a top Microsoft engineer would say such a thing is a massive change from the Microsoft so many of us grew up with, which argued vociferously that open-source software was "un-American." Microsoft is definitely behaving differently under new CEO Satya Nadella, and it's taking terrific first steps towards a more open mindset--but recent events show why you shouldn't expect an open-source version of Windows any time soon.

Spartan's rendering engine will only be open to "major Web entities"
Microsoft is currently creating a new rendering engine for Windows 10's Spartan browser, known as "EdgeHTML." The rendering engine in Internet Explorer is known as "Trident."

All other browsers now use open-source rendering engines. Mozilla Firefox uses Gecko, Safari uses WebKit, and Google Chrome and Opera uses Blink. Even if a browser itself isn't open-source--like Safari--the underlying rendering engine is.

This leaves Microsoft as the only company with a closed-source rendering engine, but the Internet Explorer Team realizes there's a problem.

"Adobe is a major contributor to open source browser engines such as WebKit, Blink, and Gecko. In the past, it was challenging for them (or anyone external to Microsoft) to make contributions to the Internet Explorer code base. As a result, as Adobe improved the Web platform in other browsers, but couldn't bring the same improvements to Microsoft's platform."

Microsoft has a solution, though. They've given Adobe some access to the EdgeHTML code, allowing them to contribute improvements. "In the same spirit of openness, we've been making changes internally to allow other major Web entities to contribute to the growth of our platform," it says.

That sounds like an improvement, sure--but, rather than just open-sourcing EdgeHTML and letting anyone contribute, they're approving individual "major web entities" in a piecemeal fashion. Microsoft is twisting itself into pretzels to get some of the benefits of being open-source without actually going open-source.

.NET is open-source on the server, but the desktop bits are staying closed
Microsoft has recently been trumpeting their open-sourcing of the .NET runtime. Some websites even wrote headlines that Microsoft was open-sourcing .NET, full stop. But it hasn't actually open-sourced all of .NET. Instead, Microsoft has open-sourced the .NET server stack and began porting the runtime itself to Mac and Linux.

That's a good thing, really. But Microsoft didn't just open-source .NET--it carefully drew lines around the things they wanted to open-source. "You can build a .Net app and then decide if you want to run it on a Linux server or on Windows Server," said Microsoft's S. Somasegar.


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