Here's hoping Microsoft gives away more code

Microsoft recently got my hopes up, donating code to MS-DOS 1.1 and 2.0, as well as Microsoft Word for Windows 1.1.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View is a trip down memory lane like no other. My first few computers were non-PCs, and these days, that's the only place I can find a working Apple IIe or Amiga 3000.

The museum also contains software, and it just got a gift from Microsoft – the source code to MS DOS 1.1 and 2.0 and Microsoft Word for Windows 1.1. Both the DOS and Word source code are freely downloadable for anyone who wants to tinker.

Many of you reading this now have never experienced DOS in your lives, and in many ways, that's a good thing. It was a primitive OS reflective of its time. This was not a Unix shell, with its power commands and multitasking. MS-DOS was a single-tasking OS. Sure, you could fudge it with Quarterdeck's DESQview, but at its heart, DOS was a single-task OS.

What I wonder is whether Microsoft realizes the potential boon this move has for the company. Programmers love to play with code, and they love to experiment in ports. When source code for anything is released, the first thing they do is start ports to other platforms, operating systems, you name it. There's nothing on SourceForge yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see things like 32-bit and 64-bit ports with multitasking added.

It's a challenge, after all, but one coders accept gladly. I remember hearing Jeff Braun, the founder and CEO of Maxis (before EA screwed it up) once say he thought programmers were the most optimistic people around because they always felt they could make their product better. I've seen that borne out many times.

I'm especially reminded of the old Dallas Gaming Mafia of the 1990s. Dallas was the home of two vital game companies, Apogee Software and id Software. Apogee had "Duke Nukem," id had "Doom" and "Quake." There was a healthy rivalry between the two, but more importantly, they would release the source code to old games no longer on the market.

id really got the trend going, as lead programmer John Carmack wanted to encourage game developers to learn. It did, and that came back to benefit id and Apogee. The best and most skilled programmers who made impressive mods were frequently hired by the two firms. When John Romero split from id in 1996 to form his own company, he hired a lot of modders himself. Then came Ritual Entertainment, also spawned from a company split, which brought in a few modders as well.

In the late 1990s, taking John Carmack's game engine code and doing something really impressive was your path to a job in the gaming industry. Carmack continued to release code, but id's releases became further and further apart.

The point is that Carmack's encouragement created a lot of careers and gave people a chance to show what they can do. Microsoft could benefit just as much by releasing old code and letting people show off their skills.

Now, I recognize that this is a far tougher thing for Microsoft. A lot of the code in its operating systems and apps are licensed from third parties. Going through all that code and doing due diligence would take a ton of time by a lot of people, and they probably won't want to waste that kind of money.

Also, Microsoft engages in frequent code reuse, something Carmack never did. He would write a whole new engine from scratch for a new game. Ever notice how Windows patches are often for XP, Vista, 7 and 8? That's because so much code is ported over. Security firm Qualys tells me as much as 70% of code is reused between the various Internet Explorer and Windows releases. So giving out Windows 2000 code might be a gift to malicious hackers and not the ones who simply want to try something creative.

Still, I saw what it did for the game companies. Yes, many of them fell apart, but believe me, it wasn't because of the modders they hired. They were run into the ground.

So I hope Microsoft keeps releasing code, and keeps an eye on what people do with it.

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