Windows as open source? Ballmer says Microsoft made a mistake in making Windows too open

You may think that Windows represents the exact opposite of open source, but Microsoft's ex-CEO Steve Ballmer begs to differ. One of Microsoft's biggest mistakes, he told an audience at Oxford University, was in making Windows too open. Is he right about it?

Ballmer gave the speech to a small group at the Oxford Union Society back in March, but extended excerpts are only becoming available online now. (You can see the speech on Bloomberg TV here.)

The talk is a wide-ranging one and well worth watching. In many public appearances, Ballmer presented himself as a bit of a clown as part of the persona he believed he needed to take on. But it's always been clear he's quite intelligent. The video is well worth watching for his thoughtful analysis of why Microsoft succeeded and the future of technology.

In one of the more interesting excerpts, he talks about software and openness, and takes what many will consider an unusual stance about it. He begins by saying that the market has a mix of closed and open models, and ultimately the market will decide which will succeed for different products. He uses the encyclopedia as an example. At one time, he says, the Encyclopedia Britannica owned the encyclopedia market with its print encyclopedias, was then overwhelmed by Microsoft's DVD-based Encarta encyclopedia, which in turn was beaten by the free, open source Wikipedia. It was an example, he said, of how markets determine which products will be open source, and which won't.

Then he talks about Windows and says:

"We were very open with Windows, Apple is less open, they do OK, we do OK...There is a form of competition based on how open you choose to be. If anything, I think we made Windows too open and so you had a little bit too much of what people wind up calling crapware. There were too many ways to sort of hijack the system. And yet people will say from the software development perspective, they prefer how open it was to extensibility."

Is Ballmer right about this? That depends on what you mean by open. He's confusing two very different concepts of openness. Windows has never been open source, never available for free, and people have never been allowed to change the code for free and do with it what they wanted. So in that way, Windows was never open. Even now that Microsoft has decided to give away Windows for free to makers of devices under nine inches, it's still not open.

However, Microsoft certainly was more open with Windows than Apple ever was with its operating systems, but not necessarily because of extensibility. Apple refuses to license its operating systems, while Microsoft built its company on licensing its operating systems and getting developers to write applications for them.

If Microsoft hadn't been open in licensing its operating systems to others, it never would have become the success it's become. So the company clearly wasn't being too open with Windows, no matter what Ballmer says about it now.

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