Washington - Nothing is more sacred to Microsoft than its crown jewels - the millions of lines of secret computer coding that propelled it from a garage start-up to one of the world's wealthiest corporations.
But now a huge chunk of that software is circulating on the Internet, giving rivals, hackers and nerds an unprecedented opportunity to peer into the inner workings of the Windows operating system, which runs the majority of the world's personal computers.
How the leak occurred is still being investigated with the help of the US's FBI. Suspicion at first fell on the open-source movement, a global network of software programmers and users, many of whom disdain Microsoft as a monopoliser and insist that computer code should be freely available for the benefit of all.
But now, investigators have switched their attention to one of Microsoft's partner companies as a possible source of the leak.
Microsoft says the runaway code includes large excerpts from the Windows NT 4.0 and 2000 programs.
Microsoft's huge predominance enabled it to charge heavily for both the purchase and the licensing of its software. It also made computer users around the world heavily dependent on a faceless American corporation. Governments became increasingly concerned about the security risk of not being able to control their own software.
For these reasons, a growing number of governments, universities and companies have turned to open source programs. These include the Linux operating system; Open Office, a free rival to Microsoft Office, and the Mozilla Internet browser.
Open source software gives anyone access to the full code of the program. Programmers can adapt or improve it as they wish. As a result, Linux and similar programs are in constant evolution. Since Linux is based on the proven Unix code, it has a high reputation for reliability.
The Apple Corporation has also decided to make available to outside developers the source code of its operating system for Macintosh computers.
As Open Source programs gained ground, Microsoft fought to defend its commercial model by introducing what it calls the Enterprise Source Licensing Program, giving carefully selected partners a chance to read, but not download, source code.
The corporation was also under heavy pressure from the US government and the European Commission because of monopoly practises, and insiders say it saw this limited access to its code as a means of blunting these attacks.
But Microsoft surrounded the licensing program with extraordinary security. Access was strictly controlled by smart cards. Partners were allowed to read only parts of the code they needed for their immediate needs. And the code to the latest XP operating system remained off limits.
A partner company that adapts Windows software for use on Unix computers has come under suspicion as a possible source of the code leak.
The fact that millions of lines of annotated Windows code are now circulating freely on the Internet does not mean that hackers will be able to reconstitute an entire operating system
What it may do is to offer the maliciously minded an opportunity to probe for vulnerabilities, develop new means of hacking into computers and produce an even peskier generation of viruses, worms and Trojan horses that can easily propagate when a single manufacturer controls the vast majority of the global market for operating software. - Sapa-AFP