"Transparency, standards, and interoperability are key," Microsoft's chief software architect, Ray Ozzie, told thousands of developers and customers at the company's MIX conference in March. It was a bold statement of direction, but can Microsoft, whose track record speaks otherwise, actually deliver?
Microsoft wants--indeed, needs--to be considered a more open company, one that embraces industry standards, adapts best practices of the open source community, and makes it easier for other software companies to coexist with its Windows and other platforms. Why is this critical for Microsoft? First and foremost because its customers want it. In our just-completed survey, 54% of the 536 business technology professionals who participated say they would be more likely to buy Microsoft products if the company were more open. Regulatory and competitive pressures are the other reasons. If Microsoft can't beat the open source model--and it clearly can't--it must find a way to become a part of the trend, not its chief antagonist.
Microsoft is moving in the right direction. In February, it outlined four "interoperability principles" to guide its future product development: publishing the protocols and APIs to its high-volume products; supporting key industry standards in those products; enabling data portability from its formats to standard formats; and getting more involved with the open source community. In the past few months, Microsoft has released 44,000 pages of documentation on the protocols in Windows, Office, Exchange, and SharePoint, with more to come, all in the name of interoperability.
Yet Microsoft is moving on its own terms and at its own pace--in other words, not fast enough. The company's uncompromising defense of its intellectual property makes it seem like a bully to the same community that it wants to engage. Microsoft continues to accuse open source developers of violating 235 of its patents. Those accusations are unsubstantiated, but Microsoft's threat of legal action hangs over the developers' heads.
Not surprisingly, business technology pros, who have had to force-fit Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies together for years, have their own doubts about Microsoft's openness. Fifty-one percent of those we surveyed regard Microsoft's openness push as mostly a PR campaign. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being "extremely open," Microsoft garners an average score of only 2.3.
That score is partly a reflection of the tight coupling of Microsoft's own products, but Microsoft isn't just paying lip service to openness. Its just-introduced Live Mesh strategy for synchronizing data across platforms and devices takes into account Adobe Flash, Mac OS X, and non-Microsoft browsers and programming languages.
It's a 180-degree turn from the company's mind-set a few years ago. Back in 2004, when InformationWeek asked Bill Gates about the need to manage heterogeneous server environments, Microsoft's chairman scoffed. "Management tools from us?" he said. "It's not like there's a shortage of people who do that."