Volume 5, Number 9 -- March 4, 2008

Linux Vendors React to Microsoft's Openness Promises

Published: March 4, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Military intelligence. Advanced BASIC. Microsoft and openness. As we cover elsewhere in this week's issue, the Windows software provider, which has a monopoly on the desktop and very close to a shipment monopoly on server platforms, has committed to being more open with customers, partners, and competitors.

In a nutshell, Microsoft says it will be governed by a new set of principles, including providing royalty-free documentation of the application programming interfaces and communication protocols in use in its products, documentation on how it will support standards; the software giant is also creating a new organization called the Open Source Interoperability Initiative, which will make Microsoft and open source projects play nicely with each other.

The reactions to what Microsoft has promised to do vary, and they vary predictably according to the closeness of various Linux distributors to Microsoft.

"We welcome Microsoft's expanded interoperability principles--enhanced engagement with the open source community will benefit all parties and lead to expanded customer choice," said Andreas Typaldos, chief executive officer at Xandros. "The strategic changes announced today mesh perfectly with our existing agreement with Microsoft to collaborate on specific technical and business issues of mutual benefit to our customers." Xandros, which now owns email server specialist Scalix, last summer inked a patent protection deal with Microsoft, similar to the one that Novell inked in November 2006. (Novell's deal didn't just include patent protection provisions, but also a SUSE Linux Enterprise Server licensing distribution deal that made it possible for Novell to keep its financial ship afloat in 2007.)

As you might expect, Novell was willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, which it has for quite some time. "I've no doubt much will be written about Microsoft's 'true' intentions and agenda." Explained John Dragoon, Novell's chief marketing officer, in his blog. "And I'm quite confident some commentary will fall into the category of 'no good deed goes unpunished.' Like any announcement, actions will speak louder than words and only time will tell the true value that will accrue to the various stakeholders." Dragoon took issue with the idea that Microsoft's new openness negated any advantage that Novell got through its landmark deal a little more than a year ago. And rightly so. Novell got plenty of cash--several hundred million dollars so far--from this, as well as at least some cooperation from Big Redmond.

Red Hat, which has been careful not to antagonize Microsoft and throw too many stones at the Novell-Microsoft deal and the smaller deals Microsoft has cut with other Linux distros, was predictably skeptical about what Microsoft was promising. Red Hat's statement, which was put out by Michael Cunningham, the company's general counsel, is detailed and bears repeating in full:

We've heard similar announcements before, almost always strategically timed for other effect. Red Hat regards this most recent announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism. Three commitments by Microsoft would show that it really means what it is announcing today:

1. Commit to open standards: Rather than pushing forward its proprietary, Windows-based formats for document processing, OOXML, Microsoft should embrace the existing ISO-approved, cross-platform industry standard for document processing, Open Document Format (ODF) at the International Standards Organization’s meeting next week in Geneva. Microsoft, please demonstrate implementation of an existing international open standard now rather than make press announcements about intentions of future standards support.

2. Commit to interoperability with open source: Instead of offering a patent license for its protocol information on the basis of licensing arrangements it knows are incompatible with the GPL--the world’s most widely used open source software license--Microsoft should extend its Open Specification Promise to all of the interoperability information that it is announcing today will be made available. The Open Specification Promise already covers many Microsoft products that do not have monopoly market positions. If Microsoft were truly committed to fostering openness and preventing customer lock-in, it would extend this promise to the protocol and interface information it intends to disclose today. There is no explanation for refusing to extend the Open Specification Promise to “high-volume” products, other than a continued intention on Microsoft's part to lock customers into its monopoly products, and lock out competitors through patent threats.

3. Commit to competition on a level playing field: Microsoft's announcement today appears carefully crafted to foreclose competition from the open source community. How else can you explain a "promise not to sue open source developers" as long as they develop and distribute only*/ "non-commercial" implementations of interoperable products? This is simply disingenuous. The only hope for reintroducing competition to the monopoly markets Microsoft now controls--Windows, Office, etc.--is through commercial distributions of competitive open source software products.

So, I wouldn't be expecting a landmark Red Hat-Microsoft deal any time soon.


Microsoft Promises To Be Less Secretive, More Open

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