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Video: Is Microsoft Open Source's Friend?

Microsoft made its most significant move since the 1992 release of Windows 3.1 on Feb. 21, when it pledged to make "strategic changes in technology and business practices to expand interoperability." What does this mean in plain English? It's Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's corporate-speak way of telling the open-source community that he can't beat 'em, so he plans to try to outflank them.
Microsoft made its most significant move since the 1992 release of Windows 3.1 on Feb. 21, when it pledged to make "strategic changes in technology and business practices to expand interoperability." What does this mean in plain English? It's Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's corporate-speak way of telling the open-source community that he can't beat 'em, so he plans to try to outflank them.Of course, that's not how Ballmer and Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie explain their move in the video I've posted at the bottom of this blog. I'm not sure exactly what point they're trying to make in their necktie-less press conference. "Constraints around standards can be very liberating to developers," says Ozzie at one point. C'mon, Ray. Tell us what you really think.

Ergo, the salient items are not the noninformational data points the two execs drone on about, but what's laid out more clearly in Microsoft's announcement overview. (Curiously, that document, downloadable here, isn't available in an open format, but rather in Microsoft's proprietary Office 2007 docx.)

The most important bullet point is this one: "Microsoft will [ensure interoperability with its products] by publishing on its Web site documentation for ALL application programming interfaces (APIs) and protocols in its high-volume products." This means Word, Excel, PowerPoint, SharePoint, Vista, Windows Server, SQL Server, and Exchange.

The 500-odd news stories which dropped last Friday all made a big point about how Microsoft has pledged to post 30,000 technical documents detailing all this stuff. That got me all excited, so I immediately went looking for the Vista stuff.

I quickly realized that no one bothered to hold Microsoft's feet to the fire on the technical meat. Probably no more than 30 docs have been posted so far. You can find Microsoft's Open Protocol Specs up on MSDN. Also available, and probably more immediately valuable, are the Office Binary Formats, up on Microsoft's new "Interoperability" site. (Interestingly, this one discloses details on doc, xls, and ppt, but nothing on docx or any of the other Office 2007 formats.)

Me, I still want the Vista stuff. I suspect many developers are also mostly interested in operating system information. True, there's good news for systems-software developers in Microsoft's revelation that it's no longer going to force people to sign onerous nondisclosure or trade-secret agreements, nor charge licensing fees to access (use, interoperate with, write code that works with) the protocols and file formats it's opening up. This is truly significant for those who've been locked out (for financial reasons or otherwise) of Microsoft's Shared Source licensing programs.

Veteran Microsoft watchers know that Microsoft has long touted its Shared Source programs as evidence of its commitment to openness. However, developers for their part have viewed the effort as a way for Microsoft to maintain control -- very tight control -- while doling out only the bare minimum that these developers needed to create their code. Suffice to say that few of the Shared Source licensees have come out of it feeling all warm and fuzzy about Microsoft. It also goes without saying that what was "shared" was only a very small slice of Microsoft's technical pie.

Which makes you wonder how the latest effort will evolve. Here's what I want to how: Is Microsoft really and truly going to open up everything, or is it mostly just planning to lift the lid of file formats and protocols while keeping the guts of its software behind the green curtain?

Because if it's just the former, that's all well and good (indeed, it will be good for the industry). But it's nowhere near as significant as if Microsoft pushed its chips all-in. Me, I suspect that Ballmer thinks he can outflank the open source threat by putting Microsoft's file formats out there so that developers are enticed to support them.

So I say to Steve that he's gotta start thinking Zen here. If you want to outflank them, you gotta outflank them. I believe Ballmer when he says Microsoft wants to be open, but I'd believe him more if was he more open. Like, if he put all of those 30,000 docs up, right now.

OK, so here's my video:

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