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.
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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