Yesterday Microsoft announced a series of interoperability initiatives to level the playing field between its own teams and third-party ones.
These will apply to the following products: 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).
Specifically, the company will publish the documentation for its application programming interfaces (APIs), (client-server and server-server) protocols and data format specifications royalty-free and with no need to obtain a licence.
It also pledged to document its implementation of industry standards, including any extensions built upon them, and to design its products in a way that makes data import and export easier. Finally, it plans to identify any patent related to its protocols, data formats and standard extensions and license them on reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) terms.
Microsoft plans to launch an Open Source Interoperability Initiative that includes labs, plug fests and technical content and announced that open source software (OSS) developers (eg, Samba developers, who already have had to pay a 10 000 fee to Microsoft for interoperability information) will not have to pay anything for the development and non-commercial distribution of implementations of its patented technologies.
Companies that engage in commercial distribution of patented technologies will have to obtain a patent licence from Microsoft, so will enterprise users that obtain these implementations from a distributor that does not have such a patent licence.
This is a very positive development. Microsoft has had plenty of opportunities to realise that it is in its long-term interest to dive into the interoperability pond rather than being forced to repeatedly dip its toes in it. These opportunities include the negative September 2007 European Court of First Instance (ECFI) judgment (which the announcement acknowledges) and the vote on OXML as a document standard (which the announcement does not acknowledge but clearly targets) next week.
In effect, the company decided to apply the same protocol-related patent framework created last October following the ECFI's judgement to all of its high-volume products (namely to make available protocol-related patent licences on RAND terms and at 'low' royalty rates and support non-commercial OSS developers).
Some will see it as a bold move. Others will quip 'better late than never'. The more cynical will ask 'what is the catch?' All three perspectives are perfectly valid. Although it is undeniable that Microsoft has improved its approach to interoperability, it is in everybody's best interest, Microsoft's included, to keep scrutinising and challenging the company's initiatives in this area. This is the position adopted by the European Commission in a public response to Microsoft's announcement.
The 'have we not heard it all before' tone of the EC announcement is not particularly helpful though. While the sceptics should be more gracious, Microsoft should also be less defensive when challenged and welcome the challenge as the start of a dialogue.
For example, when recently challenged on the limitation of its open specification promise, instead of retorting that its FAQ is clear enough, it should have endeavoured to clarify the points raised.
One year ago Ovum pointed out that Microsoft's OSS strategy was more a subset of the company's interoperability and intellectual property management strategies than a strategy in its own right.
The announcement is a good illustration of this approach.
It nonetheless represents not just a step forward for Microsoft's approach to OSS but also for its talking about OSS at the highest level of the company. From an IP point of view, though, the company has not budged a bit. On the contrary the announcement will make it easier for it to apply pressure on those OSS vendors, such as Red Hat, which (unlike Novell, for example) have yet to sign a patent licensing agreement.
And while we welcome the announcement of new APIs for Office 2007 Word, PowerPoint and Excel for developers to plug in additional document formats and for users to set these formats as their default for saving documents, we would have liked a little more enthusiasm when it comes to supporting the ODF document format and a pledge to work at ensuring the quality of the ODF-OXML converters.