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25 February 2008, 10:23

Cautious reactions to Microsoft's new openness

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Steve Ballmer didn't want to speak about Yahoo, but there was an important announcement to make. After a slight delay, due to the number of journalists waiting for a connection to the telephone conference, Microsoft's CEO opened his press conference by announcing "extensive changes" that would increase the openness of Microsoft products. The words "Open Source" and "support" were also mentioned. It was a surprising move for Microsoft.

Microsoft's new openness is based on four self-imposed principles: open interfaces, support for standards, data portability, and improved cooperation with third parties. This cooperation, says Microsoft, includes the "Open Source Interoperability Initiative", which aims to improve interoperability between Microsoft products and open source software. Microsoft is making an offer to the developer community: it will provide facilities and materials as well as organizing events to share ideas and information. The initiative could also be extended to technologies that do not initially form part of the new openness.

The disclosure of interfaces now being announced is likely to be scrutinised in Brussels, too. The EU Commission had fined the software giant and ordered it to disclose the interfaces of its server products . Microsoft accepted a concurring verdict by the European Court of First Instance in October 2007 and announced that it would meet the requirements of the EU's competition watchdogs. Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, made it clear during the telephone conference that, with the announced change of strategy, the company also wanted to draw a line under the competition proceedings in the EU: "We are now eagerly awaiting an answer from Brussels".

He didn't have to wait very long. The EU Commission said it would await action, and would also check the announcement in terms of the ongoing abuse proceedings against the software giant. The Commission pointed out in a statement that in the past Microsoft had already announced at least four times that it would disclose interface information, and added that Microsoft's declaration would not affect a further complaint against its linking of its own software products with its operating system: browser vendor Opera has complained to Brussels against the integration of Internet Explorer with Windows.

Brussels has also been investigating a complaint by the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) since January. This industry working group accuses Microsoft of continuing to withhold important information that would allow interoperability of its software with third-party products, despite unambiguous rulings. The ECIS, among whose members include Opera, RealNetworks and Sun Microsystems, is also holding fire with its assessment. It says it is too early to decide whether the announced measures actually mean a change of strategy by Microsoft, leading to future compliance with the EU competition rules.

Microsoft today said it would reveal the APIs and protocols of a whole range of products, and has already published a great deal of material – around 30,000 pages. For patents that may be affected by disclosure, Microsoft is following a two-pronged strategy. Non-commercial open source products may be developed and distributed together using patented procedures. For commercial use, Microsoft is offering a "fair and non-discriminatory" licensing system with "low fees". Patent-protected protocols are to be appropriately identified.

In addition, Microsoft products will support international standards more closely. Microsoft also wants to work together with other providers to ensure the greatest possible interoperability. Microsoft plans to make the transfer of data to and from other applications easier. This includes support for standard data and document formats. Data formats that consumers find essential are to be either developed into a standard or disclosed. When asked about the controversial OOXML format, Ballmer said Microsoft would be further pursuing the standardisation process for OOXML together with a number of industry participants.

Microsoft is entering new terrain, and Ballmer does not want Microsoft's initiative to be seen simply as a reaction to the proceedings in Brussels. "We are taking this step on our own initiative", he said. The CEO said he expected new prospects to emerge from the new openness, but he also mentioned new risks. Nevertheless, he was confident that this step would also be good for Microsoft's shareholders in the long term.


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