Microsoft Corp., which has been accused of overly guarding its market-dominating technology against integration by rivals, said Wednesday that it has formed a council of customers to identify areas to improve interoperability with its products.
The move is seen by at least one expert as driven by customer complaints and Microsoft's desire to play a bigger technology role in large enterprises.
The Interoperability Customer Executive Council is expected to meet twice a year at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters. Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the Server and Tools Business at Microsoft, will host the meetings, which are expected to focus on issues such as connectivity, application integration and data exchange.
The council's founding members include government organizations and corporations. They are the Societe Generale, LexisNexis, Kohl's Department Stores, Denmark's Ministry of Finance, Spain's Generalitat de Catalunya and Centro Nacional de Inteligencia (CNI), and the states of Wisconsin and Delaware.
Microsoft's legal troubles over interoperability stem from the monopoly it holds on the desktop with its Windows operating system. The U.S. Justice Department sued the software maker several years ago for abusing its monopoly, which led to a court ordering Microsoft to open up its technology to other vendors. The European Union is currently demanding that Microsoft open up its Windows server software protocols to rivals. Microsoft is appealing the ruling by the EU antitrust agency.
But the latest move by Microsoft is seen not as a response to those problems, but more by its desire to drive deeper into the IT infrastructure of large companies, which commonly use a variety of computer systems based on multiple operating systems, such as Unix, Linux and mainframes. In addition, it appears that Microsoft's own customers have been complaining of the difficulties in tying business applications running on Windows with other systems.
"If Microsoft is smart, they will listen to customers and work a lot more aggressively on some of these (interoperability) issues," Shawn Willett, an analyst for Current Analysis, said. "If they want to be in the enterprise, they will have to integrate better with Java, Linux, Unix and the mainframe."
Java, developed by Sun Microsystems Inc., is a standard interoperability technology that has been adopted by many organizations. Sun and Microsoft have an agreement to work together in helping companies integrate Java-based applications running on other platforms with Windows.
The interoperability hurdles, however, go beyond just Microsoft. Major technology vendors in general want customers to only use their software infrastructure products, and try to offer as complete a product line as possible. Examples of ever-expanding product lines include IBM's Websphere, Microsof's .Net, and Sun's Java.
Developing tools for interoperability cost money, and there's no immediate revenue tied to the expense. While the industry has made lots of noise about rallying around extensible markup language (XML) and other potential interoperability standards, results so far have fallen far short of the hype.
"There have been efforts, but quite honestly, the results have been slow and not particularly overwhelming in terms of what has surfaced in products," Willett said. "I wouldn't be surprised if customers are complaining about interoperability."
In February 2005, Bill Gates, chairman, co-founder, and chief software architect of Microsoft, introduced the concept of "interoperable by design" as its initiative to make its products interoperable with others using XML technology.
Nevertheless, the formation of the council is an indication that more work is needed.
"In the long run, it would serve Microsoft better if interoperability tools were better," Willett said.