Microsoft Promises To Be Less Secretive, More Open
Published: February 27, 2008
by Alex Woodie
Microsoft last week promised to take a much more open stance as it pertains to sharing APIs, protocols, and other technical documentation with third-party developers, including open source developers. The software giant established four principles that it says will provide a guide for how it will interact with other organizations in the years to come, and backed up that promise with the immediate posting of 30,000 pages of technical documentation that were formerly considered trade secrets.
Microsoft has been under the gun for the last five years as it fought European regulators for the right to restrict third-party access to its proprietary APIs, protocols, and technical documentation. Microsoft eventually lost that battle--which pitted the European Commission acting on behalf of IBM, Sun Microsystems, Novell, Oracle, and others--but a fresh new investigation by the EC into Office interoperability issues--as well as the recent two-year extension of the consent decree in the U.S.--is keeping Microsoft's feet to the regulatory fire.
With its announcement last week, it seems that Microsoft has said, "Enough is enough. We'll give you what you want." At least, it appears that way at this time.
During a hastily prepared conference call Thursday morning, CEO Steve Ballmer, chief software architect Ray Ozzie, server chief Bob Muglia, and head lawyer Brad Smith laid out the steps Microsoft will take in its quest to escape the darkness of proprietary software and find the light of openness and sharing.
At the heart of the matter are four principles, or promises, that Microsoft has made to the rest of the industry. The principles are as follows:
- Full disclosure. Microsoft will document "all of the APIs and communication protocols that are used by other Microsoft products," Ballmer says. "[D]evelopers will not need to take a license, or pay a royalty, or other fee to access any of that information." As a first step, Microsoft posted on its Web site 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade secret license. Protocol documents for additional products like Office 2007 will be published in the upcoming months, Ballmer says.
- New Office APIs. New APIs will be created for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint that will allow developers to support document formats besides the Microsoft .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats, and also allow them to set the new format as the default format.
- Support for Standards. Microsoft promises to document how it supports various standards, including documentation of extensions it makes to the standards. "This should allow developers to understand how a standard is used in a Microsoft product and foster improved interoperability for our customers," Ballmer says.
- New Organizations. Microsoft also promised to launch the Open Source Interoperability Initiative, a new organization that will seek to "promote more interoperability between Microsoft software and open source software," Ballmer says.
Ballmer tried to put the change in historical perspective. "For the past 33 years, we have shared a lot of information with hundreds of thousands of partners around the world and helped build the industry, but today's announcement represents a significant expansion toward even greater transparency," he says. "Our goal is to promote greater interoperability, opportunity, and choice for customers and developers throughout the industry by making our products more open and by sharing even more information about our technologies."
Ozzie, who once competed with Microsoft as the original creator of Lotus Notes, provided a slightly more progressive rationale for the need for greater interoperability--one that goes right to the heart of Microsoft's decision to open up Office.
"When a new type of product or technology is introduced, vendors tend to focus first and foremost on little more than whether or not their product satisfies an immediate customer need, and in these early-stage products innovation tends to trump interoperability, data portability, or any such concerns," Ozzie says. "But as users put more and more of their data into these products, a new set of issues emerge, whether it's health records, or customer databases. As an industry we've progressively learned that documents and data have a lifetime that frequently spans well beyond the lifetime of any specific application that might have been used to create it."
In other words, as the IT industry matured, customers' needs evolved too, and now customers need more portability of data and greater interoperability. Restraining their data's freedom is akin to holding back their own freedom, and will only anger them, especially with the new generation of sophisticated Web 2.0 applications on the horizon. Ozzie recognizes this shift, and deserves some credit for helping to change the course of the Microsoft ship.
Muglia took a fairly pragmatic approach to rationalizing the decision. The head of the Server and Tools division recognized that the commercial open source movement has gained a lot of momentum in recent years, and rather than fight the biggest purveyors of commercial open source, such as JBoss, SugarCRM, XenSource, Zend, SpikeSource, and Novell, Microsoft would be better off making sure its products ran on Windows, still by far the most popular operating system on the planet.
It should be noted that the four principles apply only to the "high volume" products, and not all products. The only products affected by last week's announcements include Windows Vista (including the .NET Framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007, as well as future versions of all these products.
It also should be noted that "open" does not necessarily mean "free." While Microsoft has established a covenant not to sue open source developers who utilize Microsoft technology in open source products, developers of commercial open source software will need to buy a license from Microsoft for any patented piece of technology. Microsoft promises to publish a Web site that lists all the protocols covered by Microsoft patents, and (conversely) the specific Microsoft patents and patent applications that cover each protocol.
How much will these patent licenses cost? It's impossible to say, because Microsoft hasn't published any list prices yet (the Web page with the index of Office, Exchange, and SharePoint protocols will be posted no later than June, according to Muglia). Rest assured that Microsoft promises to impose "low royalty rates" for patented technologies, under "reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms."
Lastly, if these "four principles" sound somewhat familiar to the "12 Tenets" that it unveiled a year and a half ago, you're not alone. Microsoft's head lawyer, Brad Smith, helped clear up confusion that may or may not be related to past announcements. "We've always been clear in stating that we weren't claiming that any step that we took was the best step that could ever be taken," he says. "This has been a continuing evolution, not just, I might add, for Microsoft, but in our view for the entire information technology industry."
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