Microsoft to share Office source code

Microsoft, the US software company, will on Monday respond to the competitive threat of cheaper open source software by announcing that it is sharing the source code of its Microsoft Office productivity suite with governments round the world.

The move follows Microsoft's decision to open the source code of its Windows operating system in January 2003, when it launched its government security program, or GSP.

"It's really important for us at this stage that we have this major extension of the GSP. It's a confirmation that we are making new advances in our collaboration with governments," Wilfried Grommen, Microsoft's European business strategy manager, told the Financial Times.

Significantly, Microsoft has chosen to release details of the decision to share its source code from the company's European headquarters in Paris, France. European governments had been suspicious that the inner code of the US company's products could offer the US government back-door access to their systems. Europe is proving receptive to open-source software solutions based on the rival Linux operating system, in which code can be easily reviewed and changed and the basic software is free.

Open-source productivity suites such as OpenOffice are also gaining acceptance and the release of the Microsoft Office code will be viewed as a response to that commercial threat.

Jason Matusow, director of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative said: "We are releasing 90 per cent of the source code of products such as Word [word-processing], Excel [spreadsheets] and PowerPoint [presentations].

"Shared source is the method for Microsoft to understand the benefits of open source. The problem for governments is that transparency is crucial for them to evaluate the different products as they become critical parts of their infrastructure."

To date, more than 30 countries have signed GSP agreements, including Australia, China, Norway, Russia, Spain and the UK. More than 60 countries are eligible.

Under the programme, national agencies responsible for government security are given access to the code and Microsoft offers visits to its headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

In June, the city of Munich, in Germany, announced that a year-long trial of Linux had been successful and 14,000 personal computers would be switched from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice products. But last month the move was put on hold because of concerns over new European Union patent laws.

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