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yesh omrim

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Sympathy for the Borg

4 February 2006

For a moment there, I actually felt sorry for Microsoft.

Two years ago, the European Union decided that Microsoft was violating the EU’s antitrust laws, and ordered Microsoft to license and document Windows server protocols, so that other companies could interoperate with Windows. Microsoft turned over 12,000 pages of technical information, but according to the EU’s geeks, those documents were “totally unusable”. So instead, Microsoft announced with great fanfare that is was licensing Windows server source code. You want to know how to write a program for another operating system that can use the special Windows networking protocols? Just read the Windows source code, and it will all be clear!

(A note to our less technical readers: This is like trying to figure out why your car has started to make that funny metal-grinding-on-metal noise by touring the assembly line and looking for places where two metal parts are installed next to one another. Oh, wait, cars are assembled from components built by outside vendors, so you’ll need to tour the vendors’ assembly lines, too.)

Reading this, I felt a glimmer of sympathy for Microsoft, because I have had my share of tech jobs in which I had to deal with a horribly convoluted and undocumented system, where every time I needed to figure out What’s Really Going On Here, I had to choose between asking the guy who knew how the whole system was put together because he put it together himself five years ago and had been maintaining it ever since then (and of course, since he was the only one who knew how the whole system was put together, he was too busy fixing its bugs and shoehorning in new features to spend much time explaining it to anyone else), or reading the source code (see previous comment about touring the assembly line).

And now, we have a whole operating system—or at least, a major component of an operating system—that has accreted over at least ten years, without anyone responsible for documenting it and keeping that documentation up to date, and every Microsoftie who’s had to learn something about its inner workings has learned it by receiving an oral tradition. (“Oh, you’re getting that error code? The last time I got that, I talked to Mike. He wrote three-quarters of that DLL…”) And now, all of a sudden, they need to provide enough documentation that complete strangers can do things with their code that, up until now, were in their exclusive domain. They don’t just need a tech writer; they need a tech writer with experience in operating system design, investigative reporting, and archeology.

So, for a moment, I felt sorry for Microsoft. But then I remembered that Microsoft has over 37 billion dollars in the bank, i.e., more than the Gross Domestic Product of Luxembourg. With that amount of spare change, they should be able to find someone up to the task.

via Groklaw and Slashdot