Microsoft may go open source with Danger

Microsoft may be working on an open-source operating system to run Danger mobile phones.

Microsoft may do the unthinkable with Danger, the mobile software and services developer it purchased last year: Go open source.

Bloggers are abuzz about the possibility since one claims he received a query from a recruiter looking for a NetBSD developer to work on the Danger Sidekick mobile phone. Microsoft acquired Danger early last year.

As dramatic as the move may sound, Sidekick users would be unlikely to notice, and developers probably wouldn't have the chance to freely build new applications for the device.

NetBSD is an open-source operating system that works on a variety of devices including computers and phones. However, even though it's open source, its license doesn't force Microsoft to open up its own contributions to other developers.

"It would be far, far more revolutionary if Microsoft chose a platform (Linux) that carried some inherited Open Source obligations -- such a product might be far more interesting to developers," said Garrett D'Amore, the developer who received the recruiter query.

Under the BSD license that governs NetBSD, Microsoft would not be required to share back developments based on the code or make its software open to other developers. While NetBSD could be the basis of an open system, D'Amore said he'd be "shocked and amazed if Microsoft was involved in the development of a product which used NetBSD at its core and supported developer access to NetBSD APIs [application programming interfaces]," he said. "It is very possible to build completely closed systems around NetBSD."

One analyst said he'd also be surprised to see Microsoft opening up. "Microsoft moving to open source would be a fairly radical shift to its business model," said Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis. Microsoft has always made its money by selling software. While it has recently embraced some open-source concepts, such as keeping open-source technology acquired with Powerset and continuing to share developments back to the community, it has a long history of hostility to the open-source community.

When Microsoft bought Danger, loyal customers wondered if the software giant might transition to Windows Mobile in the device. Many were dismayed at the possibility, complaining that Windows Mobile has the reputation of a business tool with a poor user interface. Users of the Sidekick, Danger's best-known device, tend to be young and heavy text-message users.

A shift to NetBSD shouldn't necessarily allay their concerns, said D'Amore. While it would be difficult, Microsoft could bring its familiar Windows user interfaces to the platform built on NetBSD, he said.

But NetBSD could offer Microsoft the tools to build a better experience. "I expect that NetBSD offers a lot of nice features for Microsoft -- it's easily embeddable, robust, well-maintained, secure, and runs in a very small footprint," D'Amore said.

In addition, it's free for Microsoft to use--its only obligation is to give appropriate credit, he said.

As further evidence that Microsoft might be developing a new operating system based on NetBSD, bloggers are also pointing to a document from 2007 that suggests that Danger was working on porting its software to NetBSD prior to Microsoft's acquisition of the company. It's possible that Microsoft has decided to continue the work Danger had already started on NetBSD.

Danger's public relations representative declined to confirm the use of NetBSD.

Danger's operating system and applications work in tandem with back-end servers to offer services such as games, social networking, Internet access, Web e-mail and instant messaging. Motorola and Sharp make Danger devices.

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Nancy Gohring

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