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The personal journal of technology journalist and conference speaker Randall S. Newton.

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Friday, April 08, 2005

Forcing the River to Run in Reverse: Microsoft and Open Source

A few miles from my home exists an occasional natural wonder. Every Spring we have a period of high water in all the streams, rivers and connected lakes, as the mountain snowpack melts. If conditions are right, a portion of the Similkameen River will run backwards. This happens when the volume of water leaving Palmer Lake, via Palmer Creek, is greater than the volume of river water where creek and river meet. The pressure of the lake water hitting the river forces it to flow in the opposite direction.

I'm reminded of this geological oddity when I note two news items today that connect Microsoft and Open Source processes and methods. These news items, and many more like them in recent weeks, make me wonder if perhaps the pressure of Lake Open Source is pushing so hard against Microsoft River that a radical re-direction is in the making.

The editors of Encarta, Microsoft's general purpose encyclopedia, are asking for reader input on edits and additions. Sound familiar? It should if you've ever used Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is written and edited by anybody who cares to participate. I know there's a big difference between asking for input and throwing Encarta wide open. But when was the last time Encyclopedia Britannica asked for reader input? Wikipedia is quickly becoming the web's general reference tool of first choice, and it is scaling the heights on the strength of open source methods. The only way Encarta can hope to keep up is to try to use similar methods.

The other news item is a update on Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative. As Information Week reports:

Shared Source is a program that allows Microsoft customers and independent developers to download Microsoft source code, examine it, and copy it for their own use. Academic researchers may go further and tinker with the source code, as open-source-code programmers do. But professional and commercial developers may only look at and use the source code. They can't modify and copy it for distribution or embed it in products without a Microsoft license.

Matusow said the success of open-source projects he has studied is based in part on the development team's ability to listen to users' experience with their code, creating an ongoing feedback loop to the team. "Being receptive is where Microsoft stands most to learn [from the open-source example] and do a better job," Matusow said.

"Being receptive" is only one of the many attributes of success for Open Source, but it is an important one, and it is a good start for a company that has until now been the poster child for proprietary software products and methods. When the biggest name in software realizes there is good reason to adopt open source methods, the rest of the software industry needs to pay attention.

How high's the water, Mama?
It's five feet high and risin'

-- Johnny Cash, "Five Feet High and Rising"


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