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Issue Date: June 2007

Deciphering Microsoft’s attitude to open source

14 June 2007

Trying to keep up with Microsoft's attitude towards open source software is a full-time job these days. It took in a number of twists and turns in the last weeks that have the potential to shape the industry towards the end of the decade.
Most obvious was the claim that Linux and open source software infringed 235 patents, which suggested that the company is about to enter into a patent war with open source vendors.
Fears over the implications soon died down, but not before Microsoft had apparently contradicted its position by striking a deal with SpikeSource
If that deal seemed counter-intuitive, how about Microsoft voting in favour of the OpenDocument Format (a rival to the OOXML formats used in Office) joining the American National Standards Institute approved list?
Why would Microsoft promote a rival format? The answer is that the company is in favour of choice - or at least being seen to be in favour of choice. Supporting ODF could be the equivalent of surrendering a pawn in a game of chess in order to set up a winning move.
"Microsoft votes for choice," the company declared as it announced its backing for ODF as an ANSI standard. The company is engaged in a war of words over file formats with IBM, which it has accused of trying to limit customer choice to ODF.
IBM was the only participant to vote against the approval of OOXML by ECMA late last year, which sparked the current slanging match. By giving its vote to ODF, Microsoft has therefore gained some moral high ground in its claims to be pro-choice.
While ODF is implemented by multiple vendors and office suites, compared to OOXML's Office 2007 implementation, Microsoft has painted IBM's opposition to the standardisation of OOXML as an attempt to force customers to use ODF.
For all the talk of customer choice, on both sides, the end game here is the global market for office productivity applications, which Microsoft dominates and the likes of Sun and IBM are trying to infiltrate.
Supporting ODF could in the long run help its hopes of getting OOXML approved as an ISO and ANSI standard.
But what of the end game in the current patent brouhaha? While Microsoft is obviously keen to protect its patents, it is also a supporter of the patent reform act, which would make it easier (amongst other things) for accused infringers to challenge patents.
Some legal experts have speculated that Microsoft's claims against open source could help drive the debate about patents and increase broad support for the patent reform act.
Just this week the Linux Foundation's executive director, Jim Zemlin, called on Microsoft to work with free and open source developers to improve the patent system.
Microsoft could not be that calculating, could it?

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