Microsoft makes boldest move yet embracing open source

In a major turnaround for Microsoft, the company Thursday promised “greater transparency” in its development and business practices, outlining a new strategy to provide more access to APIs and previously proprietary protocols for some of its major software products, including Windows and Office.

The move, inspired by the ongoing antitrust case against Microsoft in the European Union, shows the company finally acknowledging the significant impact open source and open standards have had on the industry and the company’s own business. It also should mean the end of Microsoft’s patent threats against Linux and interoperability concerns surrounding Office 2007 file formats.

During a news conference with top executives Thursday, Microsoft said it is implementing four new interoperability principles and actions across its business products to ensure open connections, promote data portability, enhance support for industry standards, and foster more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open-source communities.

These steps are “important” and represent “significant change in how we share information about our products and technologies,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a statement. “For the past 33 years, we have shared a lot of information with hundreds of thousands of partners around the world and helped build the industry, but today’s announcement represents a significant expansion toward even greater transparency.”

Under increased global pressure, Microsoft has limped toward a more open development policy for some time with strategies like the Open Specification Promise, which it published in September 2006 as a pledge that it would not take any patent-enforcement action against those who use certain technology APIs (application programming interfaces). The company launched an open-source Web site last year, a move that was notable for one of the first official uses of the term “open source” by the company. Microsoft previously would release APIs and code to developers and other companies through something it called the Shared Source Initiative rather than specifically calling its policy open source.

However, at the same time as it appeared to be more open, Microsoft continued to make bold claims and threats against technologies like Linux that it said violated many patents the company holds. While the open-source community mostly scoffed at Microsoft’s claims, some companies—including Novell—signed specific deals with the vendor to protect customers from indemnification and promote interoperability with Microsoft software.

Microsoft also continued to promote proprietary file formats it designed as the default for Office 2007—Office Open XML (OOXML)—in favor of another file format, ODF (Open Document Format for XML), which already has been approved as a global technology standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Microsoft submitted the OOXML specification to another standards body, Ecma International, in November 2005 in an effort to have it fast-tracked through the ISO. However, approval by the ISO has been stalled and the process riddled with complaints that Microsoft is not acting in the transparent way typical of an international standards process.

The announcements on Thursday don’t affect the company’s continued efforts to standardize OOXML, Ballmer said during the press conference.

Thursday’s news includes broad, royalty-free publishing of APIs and the establishment of an Open Source Interoperability Initiative to provide ongoing resources and documentation to the community, and marks more commitment than the notoriously proprietary software maker has ever shown toward embracing open standards and open source.

Microsoft plans to publish on its Web site documentation for APIs and communications protocols that are used by what it calls its “high-volume products.” Microsoft includes Windows Vista (including the .NET Framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007—as well as their future versions—under this umbrella. Microsoft will not require developers to license or pay royalties for this information, the company said.

To get this ball rolling, Microsoft Thursday will publish on its Microsoft Developer Network Web site more than 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade-secret license through the Microsoft Work Group Server Protocol Program and the Microsoft Communication Protocol Program. Microsoft will publish protocol documentation for the other high-volume products in upcoming months, the company said.

Microsoft also is providing a covenant not to sue open-source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of these protocols—a huge move for any Linux or open-source developers that may have feared litigation from Microsoft. The company said Thursday that developers will be able to use the documentation for free to develop products. However, companies that want to commercially distribute implementations of the protocols still must obtain a patent license from Microsoft, it said.

On the OOXML front, Microsoft promised Thursday to design new APIs for its Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications so developers can plug in additional document formats and enable users to set these formats as their default for saving documents. While there are add-on technologies that can translate between OOXML—the default file format in Office 2007—and other file formats, Microsoft has not included the ability to set other file formats as default in the product suite.

Microsoft said Thursday it will use a new Open Source Interoperability Initiative to provide resources, facilities and events to the community, including labs, technical content and opportunities for ongoing cooperative development. Microsoft also is seeking an ongoing dialogue with customers, developers and open-source communities through an online Interoperability Forum. And Microsoft will launch a Document Interoperability Initiative to address the issue of data exchange between widely deployed formats, the company said.

The announcement reflects a change in the market in the past couple of decades, said Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect, during a question and answer session at the press conference. “When Microsoft entered the game in the mid-80s, people focused on using the PC. They tended to use a small number of programs,” he said. Today, people use many more applications and they expect data from one program to be available in other products, he said. The changes Microsoft is making adapt to that change in the market, he said.

Still, Ballmer cautioned that end-users shouldn’t expect to see much change for some time. “Any opening up doesn’t happen overnight,” he said during the Q&A session. “I think it will be more like years than days” before end-users notice the effects of Thursday’s announcements, he said.

Microsoft finds it hard to predict what kinds of new products might become available to users because of this change. “One thing the Net has shown is that sometimes, constraints around standards can be quite liberating to developers,” said Ozzie. “Many times, new services pop out of nowhere once a standard is there and once interoperability principles are established, because we can’t think of the different potential uses of customer data and how to interface with products.”

Ballmer said he doesn’t expect the licensing changes to affect Microsoft’s bottom line. “The amount of trade secrets licensing fees we forgo will be minimal,” he said. The licensing changes are risky, he acknowledged, but the potential benefit for third parties to add value around Microsoft offerings balances the risk, he said.

While Thursday’s announcements are related to Microsoft’s legal problems in Europe, Ballmer argued that the changes were more driven by the market. “The announcement today is driven by what we’re hearing from industry participants,” he said.

Microsoft’s Interoperability Executive Customer (IEC) Council will oversee the new principles and initiatives to help keep the company honest. The IEC is an advisory board established in 2006 and comprised mainly of chief information and technology officers from more than 40 companies and government institutions worldwide.

More information about the news can be found on Microsoft’s interoperability Web site.

Subscribe to the Apple @ Work Newsletter

Comments