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5/19/2008
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Eight Things Microsoft Can And Should Do To Be More 'Open'

Microsoft as of late has been championing what it says is the cause of openness. But there's much, much more Microsoft needs to do to win over skeptics hardened by years of take-no-prisoners competition and one antitrust investigation after another.

Microsoft as of late has been championing what it says is the cause of openness. But there's much, much more Microsoft needs to do to win over skeptics hardened by years of take-no-prisoners competition and one antitrust investigation after another.That's the topic of this week's lead feature, "How Open Is Microsoft?", which you can read here.

The stigma remains that Microsoft is a company that wants nothing more than to do away with open source, open standards, and interoperability. With several of its moves this year, opponents have come out of the woodwork to criticize Microsoft's efforts as halfhearted, wrongheaded, or little more than a public relations push.

While there's validity to some of those arguments, it's clear to me that Microsoft recognizes a need for change. Web 2.0, the rise of open source, and a continued barrage of regulatory attacks make it a corporate necessity for Microsoft to do business with a softer, more transparent touch.

So here are eight things Microsoft could do to add real teeth to its commitment to openness:

1. Reveal the patents allegedly being violated by open source products, or take back claims that Linux and other open source software violate at least 235 of Microsoft's patents.

While we haven't heard more on any patent threats from Microsoft in recent months, they're still out there. "This is in no way removing the issue of patents in the context of infringement," one of Microsoft's top intellectual property execs told me earlier this year, when chatting about Microsoft's recently announced interoperability principles.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has done little publicly to show where and how it thinks its patents are being violated, other than with some broad characterization of the patents' subject areas and releasing a map of protocols to patents in Windows Server. That doesn't inspire confidence that Microsoft's patent threats are anything more than the spread of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

2. Dedicate developers to open source projects such as OpenPegasus (management software), do work on Python (a programming language) and make contributions beyond those serving its own interests.

Microsoft announced earlier this year that it will leverage open source in System Center to manage Linux, and the company's hard at work on IronPython, an open source .Net implementation of the Python language. Microsoft also uses an implementation of an open source messaging protocol interface in its supercomputing platform. Microsoft should show good faith by contributing to the core code bases of these projects rather than just the Microsoft implementations, and whatever other open source projects it decides to use. IBM and Google do it, so can Microsoft.

3. Support SVG, ECMAScript, and other key Web standards in Internet Explorer 8.0.

Microsoft claims Internet Explorer 8.0 will be largely standards-compliant. Though it already has clarified that the browser will support HTML 5.0 and CSS 2.1, there's been no such clarification on ECMASCript, which is the industry standard version of JavaScript (Microsoft has its own implementation and has argued over the future direction of ECMAScript), or on Scalable Vector Graphics, to which Mozilla has committed.

4. Work with IBM and Sun Microsystems to unify ODF and OpenXML and make ODF-OpenXML interoperability a native feature in Office.

First, I can download an add-in that allows Office to open industry-standard ODF documents, but that's about it. If you want to support standards in your software, support them by default. Though details are unclear, there may actually be movement on this front soon, and I'll be speaking with Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards about document interoperability later this week.

Second, critics have decried Microsoft's fast-tracking of OpenXML as the opposite of open, since there already was an industry standard file format on the books. Microsoft claims ODF doesn't have the feature set Office users expect and isn't backward compatible. Why not work to make the two formats meet?

5. Fund and operate a joint interoperability lab with the Linux Foundation.

Microsoft's top attorney, Brad Smith, recently wondered aloud how Microsoft, which he likened to a cathedral, could do cross licensing or broad interoperability with Linux, which he likened to a bazaar. Here's a start: set up an active relationship with the group that helps organize the bazaar. That would be the Linux Foundation.

6. Reduce or eliminate protocol patent license fees for common services like printing and file replication.

When Microsoft announced that it would be releasing gobs of protocol documentation, it also noted that people and companies would have to pay to implement protocol patents in commercial software. For those who expect Microsoft to make its patented protocols available for free, don't. Microsoft doesn't spend $7 billion on R&D annually to just give stuff away. But it can cut the prices on some of the most commonly needed protocol patents.

7. Adopt open source practices, such as community input and development, for the .Net Framework and Silverlight.

This is a bit hazy, because I'm not exactly clear on what Microsoft should do here. However, if Adobe can open source or free up major parts of Flex and Flash, why can't Microsoft do the same with .Net and Silverlight?

8. Demonstrate transparency by providing more information about what comes next in Windows 7.

It's admirable that new Windows chief Steven Sinofsky is an advocate of "translucency" rather than "transparency." He's trying to grab a little bit of that Mac allure by under-promising and over-delivering. It's OK not to release a broad swath of early information and then have to go back on your word, like Microsoft did with Vista. However, it would have been nice if Microsoft had given some guidance on Vista SP1 amidst all the bad press Vista got, instead of waiting until after some companies and consumers began saying they might skip Vista altogether.

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