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Microsoft's Latest Open Bit: More Interop

This morning Microsoft pushed itself further along the rails to openness with <a href="a sort of pledge/action plan combo to work more opening with third parties and not pursue patent legal stuff with people who implement standards and protocols. Microsoft’s strategy for living in the open source realities of today has been two-forked: (a.) partner with 3rd parties to integrate with and “do” open source rather than get it’s own hands dirty, and, (b.) allow other software to interoperate with Microsoft software via open formats and standards or APIs.

Of course, if you’re in the IHateMSFT part of the open source world, you’ll quickly be pulling apart that second part with all sorts of replies using the word “patent.” Fair enough. Being the more developer rather than legalistic/paperwork minded person I am, I favor Joel’s recent explanation of why the open office formats are, you know, not really too helpful by the nature of the beast. In summary, I read his position as, Office’s functionality, including backward compatibility over 10+ years, is so great and complex that it’d be impossible to actually do anything meaningful with open Office standards alone.

Joel’s point is seemingly more subjective (“this stuff is complex and hard to implement”) rather than objective (“look at this fine print, Microsoft would sue your pants off with patent-voodoo”), but that don’t bother me. On the other hand, if you’re speaking to a broader, non-developer audience, speaking of the more objective stuff like patents will probably get more play as objection that “this stuff is just hard to implement.” Indeed, if you’re anti-Microsoft, you don’t really want to state things that way because it only bolsters Microsoft’s arguments that people should pay for those 10+ years of hard work they’ve done on Office.

Overview of Initiatives and Plans

Overall, the thrust of the press release is that Microsoft is going to make the documentation and access to it’s software better (easier? Doubtful. See <a href="Joel’s piece), that is, more interoperable.

Highlights include:

  • “[S]tarting today Microsoft will openly publish on MSDN over 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade secret license” – for things like Office and “other high-volume products.” By “high-volume,” I think they mean more end-user oriented things.
  • “Microsoft will indicate on its Web site which protocols are covered by Microsoft patents and will license all of these patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, at low royalty rates. To assist those interested in considering a patent license, Microsoft will make available a list of specific Microsoft patents and patent applications that cover each protocol.” – this is where the IHateMSFT people are going to go to town to either (a.) prove their previous arguments that Microsoft has been dubious and devious with their patent stuff, (b.) that this interop will still be useless because vital patents aren’t available, or, the unlikely (c.) be satisfied that Microsoft has cleared up the patent fog. I must warn you, dear readers, when it comes to patent stuff, I’m dumb as a post.
  • “Microsoft is providing a covenant not to sue open source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of these protocols.” – this seems good, right? The question will be how deep those implementations can go without violating other Microsoft IP. That is, Joel’s “proof” of the absurdity of making an exact duplicate of Office aside, if someone implemented an exact duplicate (by function, not code) of Word, would they be covered here, or does the coverage only include import/export stuff? What does “protocol” mean? If you have a document format protocol, and no one renders the document, do you really have anything?
  • “Microsoft will document for the development community how it supports such standards, including those Microsoft extensions that affect interoperability with other implementations of these standards.” – if you’ve read Joel’s piece (can I reference it enough?) you’ll know exactly what this means, in the most expansive, optimistic view. Essentially, it means, “we’ll tell you what we were thinking with whacky decisions.” Most companies can’t even do this for themselves, esp. across decades old projects, so you know, this one is sort of “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,”

Again, the intention is making it easier (“better,” above) for other software folks – open or closed – to work with Microsoft products, esp. popular, “high volume” products.

An email I received from Microsoft this morning listed Windows Vista (including the .NET Framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchanges 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007 as the other “high volume” products.

Sidenote: Save as PDF?

Narrowing down to one thing particular, this bit is most interesting:

To promote user choice among document formats, Microsoft will design new APIs for the Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office 2007 to enable developers to plug in additional document formats and to enable users to set these formats as their default for saving documents.

As you may recall, there was quite the stink last year over saving to PDF in Word. There was some sort of Adobe/Microsoft scuffle going on that resulted in Adobe using the phrase “anti-trust” and then Microsoft farming out the PDF exporting to a coalition of 3rd party plugin authors.

Perhaps – and we’ll see what the Adobe reaction if any is – this bit of plugs helps address that. There was always much battle over being able to set the default format documents were saved in, or just having access to be one of the formats in the Save As menu. All this said, this on is totally “the devil is in the details” status.

Now saving by default to PDF is sort of silly – or is it? – but you can see how the ODF crew would get all hyped up about this: using Word as an ODF editor would be some sort of bizarre, but perhaps acceptable, coup for the document format war-hogs.

The Trust Barrier

So, are people buying it?

As usual, the people I speak with have a deep, almost inborn mistrust of Microsoft.

I asked people in Twitter what they though. This is definitely a self-selecting audience, but interesting none-the-less (this is sort of a transcript, if you will):

cote: what could MSFT say to make you trust them? Something like “We’re GPLv3′ing Office. Here’s the sf.net URL”?

Gianugo Rabellino: that would be even more suspicious. I think they’re on the right track, as long as he-said-she-said becomes a thing of the past

Gianugo Rabellino: I think Microsoft needs their Eclipse [Foundation] (separate foundation, joint governance, focus on community)

Mike Gunderloy: Nothing. After 15 years as dev using MSFT products, and sometimes sub to MSFT, they’ve managed to lose my trust irretrievably.

I pulled out these quotes because they’re a good representation of what Microsoft is up against when they come to the open table. There’s quite a bit of mistrust that’s practically unshakable.

Benevolent Dictatorship vs. Idealized Democracy

Personally, I’m a bit less cagey with Microsoft on this issue. As every, I’m more interested in sizing people and corporate culture up and trying to figure out their world view. From conversations I’ve had with people from phone calls, to cabs, to cocktails, Microsoft people tend to be very commercial oriented as well – what, you don’t like money? – but they’re continually flummoxed as to why people don’t think they’re open enough.

Their strategy with things open tends to be very programmer centric: don’t tell my how you want to solve a problem, tell me what problem you have, or better, what goals you want to achieve, and I’ll provide you with a solution. That is, Microsoft cares about the ends, not so much the means. Open source software tends to be much more focused on the means rather than the ends.

Thus, as with today’s press release, Microsoft sees the problem as “people want open, lawsuit-free access to data and process in Microsoft products.” Thus, Microsoft will provide that open access and documentation for how to use it. On the other side of the fence, the more open source people want that access, but they want it in a more open source way. The belief is that without the prober means to interoperability (open source), the ends will never be achieved…and, even more philosophically, the result won’t be desirable. You know, there’ll be weird lawsuits over patents or other legalistic kerfuffles that make my eyes bleed.

Ultimately, our man Gianugo is onto something with his Eclipse Foundation suggestion. Other people suggest this to me all the time, so it’s a popular idea.

The IT world in general must integrate and co-exist with Microsoft software: that’s a way of life at the moment. On the Microsoft side, they need to make the evaluation if it’s worth their effort to appease all those who want a more open source Microsoft. As quotes towards the end of the press release seem to imply in a weird sort of face-saving move, EU regulations seem to be the motivator for much of this:

The interoperability principles and actions announced today reflect the changed legal landscape for Microsoft and the IT industry. They are an important step forward for the company in its ongoing efforts to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations outlined in the September 2007 judgment of the European Court of First Instance (CFI).

Ultimately, for both the open source and Microsoft people to be happy, Microsoft can’t become more open because Euro’s will sue them otherwise: the result will just be going through the motions and not helpful to resolving the ongoing problem. (Update: indeed, see here.) Instead, if it really would be healthier for Microsoft as a company to be more open source, they have to do it because it’ll make them (more) profitable, not just to avoid lawsuits. On the other hand, if being more open source will loose revenue for Microsoft, then, sure, comply with the law, but tell people that closed source software is the way to make more money. Put a stake in the ground, and put it there often.

As I like to quote: “good luck storming the castle!”

Disclaimer: Microsoft and Eclipse are clients.

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Categories: Companies, Open Source.

Comment Feed

13 Responses

  1. Tim: indeed, there's a huge, historied (is that a word?) barrier there.

  2. "“Microsoft is providing a covenant not to sue open source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of these protocols.”

    As I said over on http://robilad.livejournal.com/29261.html , non-commercial open source can not exist, per definition of open source, so Microsoft's covenant is worth as much as a covenant not to sue South Park's imaginary underpants gnomes for stealing underpants: Nothing.

  3. This Microsoft announcement are not the Open droids you're looking for. Move on.

    This announcement is all about giving even more encouragement to get you to do what Microsoft wants you to do and little else.

    More on my blog:

    http://smoothspan.wordpress.com/2008/02/21/micros

    Best,

    BW

  4. Dalibor: yeah, they're always slipping a zinger like that in there, huh? <sigh></sigh>

  5. Non-commercial is a non-starter. They can always fix that by removing the word, if they care about actually having a covenant that covers more then 0 developers.

  6. This is the same Microsoft that was threatening patent infringement lawsuits against linux a whole three months ago? The same Microsoft that co-funded SCO’s lawsuit against IBM (and by extension all Linux users?) It takes more than a press release to convince people; the foundations for skepticism date all the way back to DR Dos. Releasing a big stack of docs and promising to probably not sue you (unless you are making money competing with them) doesn’t exactly give tons of warm fuzzies to ISVs.

  7. Underpants Gnomes… hehe

    Microsoft never ceases to amaze me, name one time Gates and Company played fair. I mean Microsoft has built an empire on the same perverse business plan since day one. Back to the GWBasic days, selling technology they would either need to steal or buy.

    Gates has been that same guy that stands outside the court asking if he can play b-ball with you, until you say sure, then he gets mad, grabs the ball and runs away with it. Next week, he's back, wanting to play again, new crowd of guys, sure play, grabs ball and runs away. time after time again, Billy has been stealing the ball (technology) and running away with it. He only comes back when he needs something, never hear from him until then.

    Steve Jobs dealt with this, and lost a GUI to MSoft, Novell (lost entire business), QuarterDeck (lost disk compression technology), Sun (Java to J++, then C#, CLR vs JVM), does this list ever stop.

    Now Gates is back, come on guys let me play, and you know, this weasel is gonna grab the ball and run away.

    And when he can't get the ball, he takes the players, Play on my team, Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes, trying to buy Yahoo, for what, Zimbra, Vincent Gullotto, MaCafee, Tom Hanrahan (Linux Foundation)

    I hope everyone has learned, when Bill shows up, expect something to get stolen.

    Don StrawsburgFebruary 22, 2008 @ 4:03 am
  8. My question is if anybody will ever trust FSF/GNU?

    Dave LivingstonFebruary 22, 2008 @ 10:30 am

Continuing the Discussion

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  4. [...] In talking with Microsoft, I tried to vet the idea of anyone coming along and integrating with the Cross Platform agent. I haven’t done my due diligence, but their intention was to have anyone and everyone develop an extension if they wanted. There’s still the fine-print to look over, Microsoft told me all the needed docs would be available for anyone to come along and build such an extension. I’m always cautious as I’ve been bitten by such hopefully thinking in the past. [...]

  5. [...] century. Interoperability and data portability is becoming important, and more so in the enterprise space. The tides are changing from closed to open systems and customers are being reeducated to see this [...]