This month’s revelation that Windows will go open source has taken the computing world by storm.

This month’s revelation that Windows will go open source has taken the computing world by storm. In announcing the change, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates introduced what’s been dubbed the Looflirpa Project — named after a tribe of Native Americans famed for scalping anyone they came across.

“We’ve started listening to our customers,” Gates said. “No, seriously. They’ve told us they just want stuff that works reliably at a reasonable price, and there’s no other way we can deliver on that.”

There’s speculation that Gates’ change of heart came after his humiliation at January’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There to introduce his company’s most exciting innovation since 1995’s “Microsoft Bob”, Gates simply couldn’t get the Windows Media Centre to work. Apparently he’d failed to register his download of Richard Clayderman’s Greatest Hits within the mandated 12 minutes so the entire operating system locked up while it dialled the FBI’s download piracy division.

But the company faces other problems, too. It can’t get 64-bit computing to work. (The first port of Linux to a 64-bit system was in November 1995 yet almost a decade on 64-bit Windows is still at least a year to 18 months away.) It can’t fix Internet Explorer. The well-known security hole with a graphical user interface has lost around 9% of its user base since the open source Firefox browser hit release version 1.0 last November. And, adding insult to injury, the free office suite OpenOffice.org continues to eat into the company’s revenue base. Version 2.0 — due about now — boasts even better handling of proprietary document formats, database connectivity and a host of other improvements, all for the cost of a download. In short, Microsoft is struggling to compete with an enemy it can’t even see let alone buy out.

Looflirpa’s beta release of code and accompanying documentation has already provided some interesting insights. The notorious “Blue Screen of Death” was apparently originally red but its colour was changed after a US$40 million market survey determined that blue was “a more soothing colour for a crashed system that’s just taken out all your work”. No funds were allocated to investigate the cause of the crashes. Clippy the Paperclip — the annoying Help assistant in Office products — was originally called Gatesy the Moneyclip. A commented-out sub-routine had the cartoon cha-racter fan a wad of notes and simply reply, “Upgrade, sucker!” to any question typed. And there are revelations of an entirely unknown programming language. Called Enhanced Dos (or Dos#), it appears to have formed the basis of Windows 95, 98 and Me.

Other documents reveal the extent of Microsoft’s patent holdings. There is, for example, US patent number 2,096,798, Sinistral Movement of Computer Input Device, which gives the company exclusive ownership of any leftward mouse movement. A sister patent (2,096,812) covers movement to the right, though it appears moving the mouse up and down is, for the present, royalty free.

Then there are the trademarks. Since its failure to lock down the Windows name last year, company lawyers have been busy. The terms “open source”, “free software”, “Linux” and “Richard Stallman” are now the exclusive property of Microsoft Corporation.

One of the main stumbling blocks to a full release of the Looflirpa code has been legal indemnification. As large amounts of the Windows kernel has been based on open source material — “Basically anything that works”, in the words of one commentator — the company was keen to avoid litigation from the SCO Group. That nightmare eased late last month when the US Senate passed the DMWCA (Do Mainly What Corporates Ask) Act that now automatically grants legal victory to whichever side has the biggest, mea-nest, most expensive team of lawyers. “It’s the way the system’s always worked,” a Justice Department spokesman commented. “We’ve just formalised the process.”

Gates — accidentally knighted last year after an unwitting operator used a Word spell-checker to correct an internal British government memo that read, in part, “Bill Gates should get knotted” — was confident of the project’s success. “By opening Windows we’re letting in a breath of fresh air,” he quipped. “Freed from the burden of continuous cosmetic enhancements, our staff can now get down and do some meaningful work. With the user community’s help we may at last be able to make Windows into a decent operating system.”

Elsewhere, reaction to the announcement has been muted. Alan Cox, widely recognised as number two in the Linux movement, described Windows as “a virus” while the operating system’s originator, Linus Torvalds, claimed it was “Pacman-like”. Others reckoned Microsoft had got Looflirpa backwards. Time will tell.

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Geoff Palmer

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