Battle cry for the new millenium: Free the APIs!

Peeking Under the Hood

Battle cry for the new millenium: Free the APIs!

The 1964 Mini Cooper S that Auntie drives to NT user group meetings blew a cylinder head the other day, so my Fabio and I had to tow it to the garage. I’m in the car shop’s waiting room nursing a cup of Joe and watching TV, when Bill the mechanic comes in and says, “I’m afraid I have some bad news. We’re going to have to send it back to the U.K. for repairs.”
     “Excuse me?”
     “Well, the manufacturer doesn’t let us fix these cars. They say it’s a proprietary design and they’re the only ones allowed to open up the casing. If I crack the case, they could sue the garage. They’ve sued other shops. I figure we should have the car back in about three weeks.”
     “Three weeks? How do you expect me to get to the Mt. Rushmore Rollerblade 500 without my car?”
     “Sorry, Miss Pea, it’s the best I can do.”

OK, so maybe I drifted into la-la land while watching Amber wriggle out of yet another lie on The Bold and the Beautiful, while leaning my head against Fabio’s brawny shoulder. Car manufacturers don’t do the sort of thing I was daydreaming about, but a certain company from Redmond does. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever had to dig under the hood of a server or wondered why your software, which does the same things as a Microsoft product, will never do them as well.

Can you say “API”? Microsoft’s unwillingness to open its source code has nothing to do with maintaining its integrity and everything to do with maintaining a leg up on its competition (that is, the ones that are left).

Think about it: When Microsoft decides to enter a market, it eventually rules it or is at least one of the top two or three players. Don’t you think Microsoft’s developers have access to a teensy bit more, uh, information about the operating systems than us mere mechanics?

Redmond’s unwillingness to open up its source code—“We’re looking at the issue.” Yeah, sure—makes all our lives more difficult. We often hit dead ends with our customers when we reach the end of the detail allowed to us in troubleshooting and have to call in the gods of Redmond for divine intervention. We earthbound developers don’t have the same resources a Microsoft programmer does. So, please don’t tell Auntie anything different—she wasn’t born yesterday. We’ve all known this for years, but it’s one of the nasty little secrets no one really talks about for fear of retribution from the Pacific Northwest.

We, the MCPs, have interests to think about that are far beyond those of Microsoft’s. We have to take its products and make them work off the Microsoft campus on less-than-ideal networks, with less-than-ideal resources, in less-than-ideal timeframes. We could make them work that much better if we had an idea what $*%@-ing code was causing the problems.

It’s time to start talking about that nasty little secret. Explain to your customer or employer how this practice increases its TCO, for starters. Care to bet that open code would mean fewer calls to Microsoft PSS and less downtime? It won’t eliminate the need for PSS entirely. There are times we all want to consult with Redmondians; after all, they’re the final experts on their own products. But just imagine the usefulness of Microsoft’s Unabridged Guide to the Win32 API for developers, for administrators, for architects.

That guide may actually exist now, and Auntie feels it’s time to pull it out of the locked vault and publish. Heck, I’ll write the foreword.

But back to reality. Ten thousand MCPs complaining won’t disrupt the afternoon latte break on the Microsoft campus, but a group of cranky Fortune 500 customers just might be able to get an email escalated to steveb. Talk it over with your employers and customers. Have them bring it up to Microsoft when the time comes to renegotiate their Enterprise Agreements. Ask them to send the message that open is good, secretive is bad—for all concerned. Let Redmond be free to wash their hands of supporting anyone who alters the OS, but the rest of us need the full documentation, particularly of the OSs and core APIs, in order to do our jobs better. Betcha Microsoft would make yet more money (if that’s even possible) if they took this path.

Free the APIs!

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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