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Microsoft Lays Out Protocol Patent Licensing Terms

Protocols for Office 2007, SharePoint 2007, and Exchange Server 2007 are out, but it's too early to tell what impact those releases will have on the company or its partners and competitors.

Microsoft continues its release of protocol documentation as the company laid out in its Interoperability Principles earlier this year in response to a more open market and continued anti-trust scrutiny.

But it's too early to tell what impact those releases will have on the company or its partners and competitors.

Monday marked the latest round of information, as Microsoft posted the first finalized version of documentation on protocols for Office 2007, SharePoint 2007 and Exchange Server 2007, as well as 5,000 new pages of information on the binary file formats found in versions of Office before Office 2007, online.

The binary file format documentation had already been released, though in a different form. This round of binary file documents moves them to templates that make them much more consistent with the rest of Microsoft's documentation. The move to standard templates signals that Microsoft wants to be better prepared to more easily release documentation going forward, and that the company understands developers would prefer something easy to navigate.

Version 1.0 of the protocol documentation is also accompanied by pricing to license patents that are intertwined with some of the detailed protocols. Those patents will be listed in patent maps available upon request. However, patent maps are available online for Microsoft's separate Work Group Server Protocol Program and Communications Protocol Program.

The protocol patents don't come as cheap as some small time implementers would hope. Non-commercial open source distribution of the implementations don't cost implementers a dime, but they cost those hoping to make money 1% of the revenue gained by implementing the protocol documentation in their products, including $10,000 in non-refundable royalties up front. Since they are based on revenue, these royalty terms would also give Microsoft insight into revenues of competitors and partners to which the company otherwise wouldn't have access.

In addition, there's a minimum royalty ranging from 10 cents per user for an online service implementing a Windows Vista or Windows Server protocol patent to $85.54 per copy of a product that doesn't fall under the categories of client application, server application, online service or device application but implements non-Windows protocol patents. For cheap products, that would likely raise the royalty rates far beyond 1% of revenue.

This round of document dumps almost certainly doesn't mark the end of the process for Microsoft, which has said it will continue to release information on protocols in those three products as well as Windows, Windows Server, and SQL Server.

"This doesn't mean we're done updating and it doesn't mean we won't improve the documentation," Craig Shank, Microsoft's new general manager of interoperability, said in an interview.

Shank takes over for Tom Robertson and will be in charge of driving both interoperability and standards for the company. Robertson, the company's former general manager for standards and interoperability, is now associate general counsel for Microsoft's office business.

In the past few months, Microsoft has begun hosting events called "Plugfests" where companies and entities licensing Microsoft's patents come together to discuss and test implementations of Microsoft's protocols. Among the participants have been Samba, Sun, Apple, and NetApp.

According to Shank, Microsoft and the implementers have begun to discover that in some cases, implementation problems -- and therefore interoperability problems -- are caused not by Microsoft, but because of incorrect implementations between two non-Microsoft parties.

"As we've had people in to do this, we've had dramatic increase in interoperability and significant increase in collaboration between the implementers," Shank said. However, it's so far unclear exactly how the documentation has increased interoperability between and among products. In a statement, Juniper Networks remarked that the documentation has helped its developers update its access control products, but didn't give any concrete details on exactly how it has helped.

Microsoft also is beginning to work on ways to make its Open XML Office file formats more interoperable with OpenDocument Format (ODF) and China's Uniform Office Format (UOF). The company's held a number of roundtables to test interoperability between implementations of Open XML and the ODF and has begun developing new translators between OpenXML and both UOF and ODF. The company has committed to including more support for both formats in future version of Office.

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