Microsoft launches a new wave of interoperability initiatives

Microsoft surprised everyone today, rolling out a huge set of initatives around interoperability between non-Windows software -- including open-source -- and its own. Is Microsoft bowing to pressure from the European Commission?

Pointing to reasons that go beyond compliance with US and European legal and legislative decisions, Microsoft executives this morning unveiled a sweeping set of interoperability initiatives. The focus today was on standards support, document formats, and playing nice with non-Microsoft products, including open source software.

In a press teleconference today, Microsoft rolled out four new "interoperability principles," along with pledges to take certain actions now and in the future to live up to those principles. The principles include Open Connections to Microsoft Products; Support for Standards; Data Portability; and Open Engagement.

"There's been some question in the past about where Microsoft is serious about industry standards," noted Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect. In working more closely with industry standards groups, Ozzie added, Microsoft will sometimes "take the lead" and sometimes hang back.

With regard to Open Connections, Microsoft today published 30,000 pages of documentation on APIs for software to communicate with Windows-based services. The published APIs can now be used free of charge by anyone for noncommercial purposes -- something the EC's Competition office had been hoping the company would do months, even years, ago.

Although these APIs have been available in the past, developers needed to purchase "trade secret" licenses in order to use them, said Brad Smith, senior VP and general counsel for Legal and Corporate Affairs.

Commercial uses of some of these "open products" will require patent licenses. But Microsoft will license the patents on "reasonable and non-discriminatory" terms, at "low rates." At the same time, Microsoft will continue to retain trade secret licenses around some of its intellectual property, admitted CEO Steve Ballmer.

Beyond the API documentation posted today, Microsoft expects to publish thousands of additional pages of documentation by June, including APIs for accessing SharePoint, Microsoft Office, and other "high volume" products, executives told reporters.

They also maintained that with today's announcement, along with future steps toward additional interoperability, Microsoft is being "very proactive" about meeting requirements of the US DOJ Antitrust Division and the European Commission.

But Ballmer brushed aside suggestions that Microsoft is moving toward greater interoperability merely to avoid further antitrust actions. Instead, Ballmer acknowledged, the new initiatives "do reflect the reality of our unique legal situation."

Ballmer and his colleagues also suggested that Microsoft is now starting to tweak its business model in accordance with changes in the IT environment such as the rise of Linux, open source, and service-oriented achitectures along with demands by customers for greater interoperability in multivendor data centers.

Microsoft's new Data Portability principle contains a number of planks, including one calling for Microsoft-developed data formats "where the portability and interchangeability of data is critical" to be either offered to a standards group for standardization or made available to the developer community for "independent implementation."

Under the Open Engagement priniciple, on the other hand, Microsoft plans to set up both a Web-based Interoperability Forum, for communicating directly with users online, and an Open Source Interoperability Initiative, to include "plug fests," labs, and other events and technical resources for the open source community.

Bob Muglia, senior VP of Microsoft's Server and Tools Business, indicated that the advent of the open source interoperability initiative was influenced by Microsoft's involvement with Linux companies and projects since the launch of its interoperability deal with Novell in late 2006. Since then, he said, Microsoft has been working on technical interoperability with TurboLinux, Xandros, JBoss, and SpikeSource, for example.

"We've seen some very tangible benefits," according to Muglia.

Drawing a big, general picture of the shifting landscape in IT, Ballmer and Ozzie played tag-team. First, Ballmer contended that, "when we were growing up," the IT world revolved around individual machines running stand-alone applications.

Since that time, Ozzie added, "virtually every system and product has become interconnected to other [systems and products]." He predicted that the interoperability initiatives will create an "open and level playing field" for developers in tying into Microsoft's products.

Ballmer added his belief that today's IT environments are "more connected and service-oriented," and "one of the biggest value-adds will be what happens on the other side of the wire." Although these newer environments pose new risks to Microsoft, they also present new opportunities, he said.

"Frankly, net-net, [this] should be a good thing for our shareholders," according to Ballmer.

The Microsoft CEO also seemed unrattled about a rather skeptical reaction published online by the European Commission.

"The European Commission takes note of today's announcement by Microsoft of its intention to commit to a number of principles in order to promote interoperability with some of its high market share software products," reads an EC statement at mid-afternoon, Brussels time, following Microsoft's published statement but just prior to the press conference. "This announcement does not relate to the question of whether or not Microsoft has been complying with EU antitrust rules in this area in the past. The Commission would welcome any move towards genuine interoperability. Nonetheless, the Commission notes that today's announcement follows at least four similar statements by Microsoft in the past on the importance of interoperability."

The statement went on to say Microsoft failed to mention whether it intends to stop bundling or "tying" software products together, driving adoption of one by attaching it to another. Such practice is deemed anti-competitive in Europe by the EC, and is the subject of a continuing investigation there which could net Microsoft even further penalties down the road.

Ballmer merely told journalists this morning that the EC is entitled to "speak for themselves."

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