Microsoft Promises Interoperability

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In a move no doubt calculated to appease antitrust officials in Europe and the rest of the world, Microsoft has announced four key new interoperability principles it intends to implement across Windows Vista, it’s .NET framework, and mainstream server technologies. The new interoperability concepts are intended to increase the openness of Microsoft’s products and provide opportunities for developers—in fact, the company is promising it won’t sue open source developers for implementing key Microsoft protocols. Microsoft has launched a new interoperability Web site to detail the program to developers.

“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,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in a statement. “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.”

Microsoft is heralding these new principles of interoperability as a fundamental chance in the way it shares information about its products and technologies. If that proves to be the case, it may appease antitrust regulators in the U.S. and the European Union who have repeatedly rapped Microsoft’s knuckles for failing to adequately disclose protocols used by its server products and operating systems so third parties can interface with the systems successfully. Microsoft recently gave up its appeals of antitrust rulings against it in Europe, and just had oversight of its business practices in the U.S. extended for another two years as a result of an antitrust settlement it made with the federal government in 2001.

Microsoft intends to apply the principles across its “high volume” products, including Windows Vista, the .NET framework, Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office Sharepoint Server 2007, along with future versions of the products. Part of Microsoft’ effort will including publishing documentation and API information without requiring developers to obtain a license or pay a royalty: Microsoft says it’s pushing out 30,000 pages of documentation on MSDN today that were previously only available under a trade secret license. Microsoft will also document which protocols are covered by Microsoft patents, and promises to license those patents on reasonable, non-exclusionary terms.

Microsoft also says it won’t sue open source developers who build or distribute non-commercial implementations of its protocols, although developers who engage in commercial distribution of open source implementations will need to obtain patent licenses.

Microsoft also promises new APIs for its mainstream Office applications that will enable developers to support additional document formats, like OpenDocument Format (ODF). Microsoft also promises it will work with major standards implementors when it adopts a standardized technology in its high-volume products, and that documentation of its implementations will be available free of charge.

“Customers need all their vendors, including and especially Microsoft, to deliver software and services that are flexible enough such that any developer can use their open interfaces and data to effectively integrate applications or to compose entirely new solutions,” said Microsoft’s chief software architect Ray Ozzie. “By increasing the openness of our products, we will provide developers additional opportunity to innovate and deliver value for customers.”

If Microsoft follows through on these principles, they may well represent a fundamental shift in the way the company develops its products. To date, Microsoft’s product development methodology has been based on implementing proprietary solutions that, in the real world, only work well with other Microsoft products. By trying to convert its products into a common denominator other developers can work with, Microsoft may find its protocols embraced as the bedrock of business and enterprise computing for decades to come—and in the long run, that would keep Microsoft in a leadership position in the software business.

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