updated 9/20/2004 12:02:18 AM ET 2004-09-20T04:02:18

Microsoft Corp. is expanding a program to give government organizations access to some of its tightly guarded software blueprints amid growing competition from rivals who make such source code freely available.

Beginning Monday, Microsoft will offer more than 60 governments and international organizations the option of viewing the proprietary source code for the latest version of its ubiquitous Office software, including the Outlook e-mail program, Microsoft Word and Excel spreadsheet application. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

The Redmond, Wash., company already gives the same government groups the opportunity to view the source code for its dominant Windows operating system. About 30 of them, including Russia, China, Norway and the United Kingdom, have agreed to sign the free license, said Jason Matusow, a director with Microsoft’s “shared source” program. The United States has viewed Windows source code before but is not participating in this program now, he said.

So far only one, the United Kingdom, has agreed to view the Office code, he said.

'Open source' alternatives
Microsoft has launched a number of efforts in recent years to give governments and certain private groups access to some source code. The moves come as an increasing number of governments and companies are looking at switching to “open source” alternatives such as Linux.

Proponents say open-source software is cheaper to run and less of a target to security threats because the underlying code — and any improvements — are freely shared.

Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research, said Microsoft’s government program has been successful in terms of convincing governments that Microsoft is not hiding secrets within its source code, and in helping those governments feel more secure about using Microsoft products.

Now, he said, it’s important for Microsoft to expand the program to Office because open-source alternatives are gaining traction, particularly with overseas customers.

While Microsoft’s Office is still by far the most popular business software, analysts say more attention is being paid to products like Sun Microsystems Inc.’s StarOffice, based on the open-source OpenOffice program. Other homegrown alternatives are also popping up outside the United States.

'Money being spent'
“It is more than just a hum in the background,” Schadler said. “There are real decisions being made and money being spent, and Microsoft is starting to see, at the margin, an impact.”

Matusow said the company has learned from open-source organizations about the value of sharing source code with trusted groups. But he said this program has more to do with providing a deeper level of information about its products, such as to improve security, than in trying to snare business from open-source competitors.

“Open source is a factor, but this is in response to those long-term discussions around transparency,” he said.

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