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Martin LaMonica

Staff Writer, CNET

Microsoft is considering the release of source code for a popular tool used to build Windows programs.

In a blog posting last week, Shawn Burke, a development manager at Microsoft’s Windows Forms team, floated the idea of releasing the source code to Windows Forms to its developer customers. Windows Forms is a programming model used with Microsoft’s Visual Studio tools to build the user interface portion of Windows desktop applications.

Burke made clear that open sourcing Windows Forms is under consideration, but that no decisions have been made.

He said that the idea faces hurdles, including legal issues, security and cost, and that the move is not universally supported within Microsoft. But at the same time, Burke noted that other teams within the developer division are working on projects to make code available as well.

Jason Matusow, the director of Microsoft’s Shared Source program, said there are many products being evaluated on a case-by-case basis for inclusion in the program.

Before releasing source code, Microsoft weighs many considerations, including backward compatibility, interoperability and the need to balance open source code releases with Microsoft’s proprietary “closed source” products. “We have to look at who the users are and what problem they are trying to solve,” Matusow said.

The open-source development model allows collaborators to view code and submit changes, such as bug fixes or enhancements. Many open-source software projects, such as the freely available Linux operating system and the OpenOffice desktop application suite, pose a competitive threat to Microsoft’s business, and the company, in general, closely guards access to its source code.

However, the software giant continues to add to the list of products that have a license that allows big companies, government customers, partners or academics to view all or portions of the source code. Its shared source program addresses several products, including the Windows CE operating system for devices and other tools targeted at programmers.

In September, Microsoft made the code for FlexWiki–collaborative Web authoring software–freely available and available under an open-source license. Also in 2004, the company released Windows Installer XML, or WiX, to, following up a month later with the posting of the Windows Template Library, or WTL, project. All three products were released under the Common Public License (CPL).

In 2002, Microsoft submitted its Rotor project, which included the source code to its Common Language Infrastructure–the software underpinning Microsoft’s Visual Studio development tools–to the standards body ECMA International.

As with these other efforts, making the source code of Windows Forms available is meant to appeal to programmers, who covet access to the inner-workings of products.

“(Source code) helps them become better programmers,” said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk. “The best developers like to know how things work.”

Microsoft’s Burke said he would like to release the code of Windows Forms as well as a bug-tracking database. In theory, access to the code and known bugs will allow programmers to better understand the tool and separate a product bug from their own.

Releasing the source code of any product does carry the risk that virus writers will have more insight into how to cripple a product. Yet Burke took the opposite view, saying that the security risk would be minimal.

“If you have a security hole and you ‘hope’ someone doesn’t find it because it’s difficult to find, you’re in trouble. They’ll find it,” he wrote.

Having gathered feedback from customers, Burke said he would pursue the plan to release the Windows Forms code in the most expedient manner possible. Most likely, he said, Microsoft would strip out human-readable comments within the code, which could have references to specific customers or inappropriate language.

“No promises but I’m feeling optimistic,” Burke wrote.