Microsoft's Ray Ozzie: 'Nobody's going to be 100% open'

PDC 2009 story bannerOver the last five years, Microsoft has undergone a gradual, but significant, shift in its public image, a shift toward interoperability and a willingness to play more fairly in competitive markets. At the same time, it remains a commercial software producer committed to the protection of its proprietary intellectual property.

Openness, as CEO Steve Ballmer explained to his company's Worldwide Partner Conference in July 2008, should not imply free. "Open source also implies free -- free is inconsistent with paying for lunches at the partner conference," he told attendees at the time.

The picture Ballmer painted then was more black-and-white, where Microsoft will selectively venture into the black world of openness where necessary, but stay rooted within the white world of business that pays salaries and funds conferences. Last week during a press luncheon at PDC 2009 in Los Angeles, where Betanews and others were invited, Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie (the company's leading executive spokesperson now, after Ballmer) painted a more scalable picture of "openness" from Microsoft's vantage point, one which is more attainable by degrees.

What's 'open?'

"Well, we're all open and we're all not open," said Ozzie, in response to a statement repeated (at least) four times by TechCrunch reporter Steve Gillmor: "Android's open." Gillmor was pressing Ozzie and colleague Bob Muglia, President of Server and Tools, to be more "open" about when and whether Silverlight will become interoperable among multiple smartphone platforms (the Silverlight video on iPhone announcement had not yet been made). Someone in the company giggled in response to Ozzie's remark like an extra on "Hee Haw"...it was probably me.

"I mean, nobody is going to be a hundred percent open," Ozzie continued. "Android's not 100% open, we won't be. There are things that are illegal that, if you have the ability to shut off, we're going to have to shut off. There are things that get in the way of your partner's business model. I may be wrong on this...but the way Google Voice hooks into the Droid, I think Verizon's still gets billed for calls...So Windows has a brand value of openness, meaning, we don't control what desktop apps people write. It's got a history of data openness; we don't look at the data that's sitting on your desktop. So I think as we move forward, the nature of what we do on phones that carry the Windows brand, will probably be more open than not. It's not like the Xbox, where Xbox, like the iPhone, is more of a managed ecosystem [that] is part of the business model."

Seated next to Ozzie was Moonlight developer Miguel de Icaza, who related his recent problems with Apple in working to port code from Moonlight (a Silverlight-compatible runtime for non-Windows platforms) from Mac OS X to the iPhone. Technically, there were few problems at all; but Apple made the decision (after the fact) that two of the APIs that de Icaza's team ported over, should not have been.

Are apps important on phone platforms?

LiveSide.net blogger Kip Kniskern followed up by asking Ozzie and Muglia why consumers should wrestle with the confusion over phone platforms at all -- specifically, why can't there be an App Store that's a single location that applies to every user? Ozzie interrupted by saying, "This isn't going to be a big deal for consumers anyway. It's not going to be at all.

"Let's just step back: There's a lot of confusion, I think, right now, about what's going on on the phones," he continued, "and I'll just give you a high-level perspective -- this is my perspective, I'm not 'right,' I may be wrong, it's a perspective: These are app phones -- what distinguishes them from everything else. We're now in an era where apps are the higher [element of importance], not just calls. And the apps that are on them, most of them -- I know there are exceptions, but most of them -- aren't deeply complex. A lot of them are apps that somebody paid a reasonable amount of money for some group to go port or implement. A lot of them are front-end companions to a Web service on the back end. I think, my assumption -- and I don't have any reason to believe that this is wrong -- is that once things settle out, and we all have app phones (Apple has an app phone, Google has an app phone, Microsoft has an app phone, BlackBerry/RIM has an app phone)...If there's a market there, all the apps that count will be ported. Every app that matters will be ported to every one of them, because if there's a set of users and it costs $50,000 of consulting time to have somebody port a little app, it's going to get ported. So I just don't think there's going to be significant differentiation at the app level.

"This is a big difference from the PC, Mac ecosystem in the past" Ozzie continued. "You cannot take the lessons that we learned in that era and apply them to the phone. It's a totally different world. If all you saw on the phone was Office -- something of that substance that took that many man-years to implement, and it was very nuanced -- then it would be different."
Kniskern reminded Ozzie of the remaining problem with apps not being approved by the proprietors of app stores, especially Apple's. "But once the other app phones have a more lenient approval environment, then they change."

Next: Is Microsoft's cloud bigger than the law?

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