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2/21/2008
03:08 PM
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Competitive And Antitrust Forces Spur Microsoft's Openness Pledge

Despite the rhetoric, Microsoft said it will continue to play verbal hardball with commercial open source competitors that don't license the company's intellectual property.



Microsoft opens its software a bit more to the rest of the world? There's more than meets the eye going on.

Microsoft Thursday made another of several broad commitments to more openness, but this time brought concrete actions and promises to the table by, among other things, publishing thousands of pages of protocol documents and offering APIs to third parties so that developers could create products that better interoperate with Microsoft products.

Behind the scenes, a backdrop of antitrust scrutiny, an aggressive push for Microsoft document standards, and continued jostling for competitive positioning against open source and online competitors likely pushed Microsoft toward a newfound fondness for openness and sharing what have heretofore been considered trade secrets.

"When a new type of product or technology is introduced, vendors tend to focus first and foremost on little more than whether their product satisfies an immediate customer need, and in these early stage products, innovation tends to trump interoperability, data portability or any such concerns," Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie said on a conference call announcing the strategy change. Ozzie and other executives point to a changing landscape emerging as Microsoft has matured, one that requires data portability and interoperability.

Microsoft, as its CEO Steve Ballmer noted, is shifting in some ways from being a company that gets added value from developers who create applications that run directly on Microsoft operating systems on a PC to one that gets its added value from applications that connect to and work with an increasingly wide variety of Microsoft software through networks. Meanwhile, Ozzie added, more and more corporate documents have been digitized and need to be stored indefinitely and potentially accessed years down the line, long after their file formats have become obsolete. In that world, openness becomes key for the company's continued success in selling software platforms.

The mainstreaming of Linux and other open source technologies like the Apache Web server is another catalyst for Microsoft to push toward more openness. The actions Microsoft is taking include an agreement not to sue noncommercial open source developers using Microsoft protocols as well as starting several new organizations and efforts tasked with creating open lines of communication between Microsoft and open source communities. Instead of espousing the virtues of Windows everywhere, as Microsoft has in the past, Ozzie admitted Thursday that "heterogeneity is the norm" in most business IT environments.

Ballmer admitted during the new conference that this new strategy could "open up opportunities" for third parties to take market share from Microsoft, ostensibly because they'll have access to the very same APIs and protocols that Microsoft does for creating its own products, many of which Microsoft has long touted as working "better together." Still, this shift is in some ways an admission that Microsoft has to change with an increasingly open and services-oriented world of software architecture. "I believe Microsoft's long-term success depends on our ability to deliver a software and services platform that is open, flexible, and provides customers and developers with choice," Ballmer said.

That said, Microsoft may continue to play verbal hardball with commercial open source competitors that don't license the company's intellectual property. It's not like Microsoft is suddenly going to espouse the virtues of completely free software. "This is in no way removing the issue of patents in the context of infringement," Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft VP of intellectual property and licensing, said in an interview. Though a changing technology world is important, part of the new landscape also has been shaped by court systems in the United States and Europe. The European Union recently has stepped up and opened new antitrust investigations into Microsoft's business practices, while a recent decision in the long-running U.S. antitrust case found that Microsoft still wasn't being open enough with its communications protocols.

Much of the discussion during Microsoft's press conference announcing the new strategy focused on the company's legal requirements in relation to antitrust scrutiny. "The interoperability principles and actions announced today reflect a changed legal landscape for Microsoft and the information technology industry," Brad Smith, Microsoft's top attorney, said on the call. For its part, the European Union took a skeptical eye to Microsoft's announcements.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also is aggressively trying to get its new Open XML document format ratified as an international standard in the face of opposition from competitors such as IBM who say Open XML isn't documented well enough and who raise the specter of Microsoft as monopoly. That may have pushed Microsoft to offer APIs that will allow third-party software companies to create plug-ins that can make non-Microsoft file formats the defaults in Office applications.

Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager for interoperability and standards, said in an interview that the timing of this announcement had nothing to do with a meeting of nations next week in Geneva to discuss the status of OpenXML, the open APIs could provide Microsoft with the ability to espouse its monopoly file formats as open to all, therefore making them more satiable to companies and countries who have opposed Microsoft's standards push.

Microsoft's made promises to be open before, but this time they brought out top executives and created real initiatives to spur change. How well the company delivers could help spell its success or failure in the long run.

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