Microsoft's latest interoperability pledge: How free is 'open' now?

No move by Microsoft to share information with its competitors will ever be taken at face value, and certainly yesterday's new Interoperability Principle will come under very close scrutiny. Is this the opening of the floodgates the EC has been demanding?

In incremental, measured, if slow steps, Microsoft has made some efforts to comply with directives from the European Commission to make its software and protocols more interoperable with products from other manufacturers. Yesterday, the company surrendered one more boundary between its interoperability policy and the EC's dream situation, making a huge chunk of the information it published in response to the EC's order available to developers free of charge.

"We're announcing that developers will not need to take a license, or pay a royalty, or other fee to access any of that information," revealed CEO Steve Ballmer yesterday (according to Microsoft's transcript). "As an immediate first step to apply the principles today we're publishing to the Web over 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a 4D trade secret license. In addition, protocol documents for additional products like Office 2007 will be published in the upcoming months."

The company's newly published Interoperability Principle spells out the terms to which Ballmer referred: "Microsoft will publish its documentation for these Open Protocols and Open APIs on its website so that all developers will have the benefit of this technical information in a manner that takes advantage of the nature of open discussion on the web. Microsoft will not require developers to obtain a license, or to pay a royalty or other fee, to have access to all this information."

But free access, the Principle makes clear, does not mean free use. While Microsoft will no longer charge fees or royalties for parties seeking information on how to make their software interoperable, it may yet charge royalties for the way others use that information.

"Some of Microsoft's Open Protocols are covered by patents," reads the Principle. "Microsoft will indicate on its website 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 developers in clearly understanding whether or not Microsoft patents may apply to any of the protocols, Microsoft will make available a list of the specific Microsoft patents and patent applications that cover each protocol."

The use of APIs to access those protocols, however, will not require a license, even if the service with which software is communicating is itself protected by Microsoft patents. So the company is making it clear, interoperability will not require licenses or incur fees, but like operability (building a product using a design inspired by Microsoft's patented IP) may very well.

The Principle does specify the products to which it applies: "Windows Vista including the .NET Framework, Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007, and future versions of these products." Previous editions of those products were not listed.

But while Ballmer and others referred to Office 2007 interoperability yesterday, there actually was no mention of Open Document Format, the basis of competing applications suites and the first such format to receive international standardization. Microsoft did open up access -- or at least, open it up somewhat more -- to its principal current products, so it did specify the "to what" part of the change argument, to borrow Rep. Barbara Jordan's famous phrase once again. But it did not specify the "from what."

Thus the status of an ODF plug-in for Office 2007 was not clarified yesterday, even though some got the impression that's what Ballmer was referring to.

Next: More calls on Microsoft to open up even more...

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