Microsoft announced on Feb. 21 in a press release that it was launching "broad-reaching changes to its technology and business practices to increase the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for developers, partners, customers and competitors."
Specifically, Microsoft promises to "enhance connections with third-party products," by publishing documentation for all its high-volume products' APIs (application programming interfaces) and communications protocols that are used to connect with other Microsoft products. According to the statement, "Developers do not need to take a license or pay a royalty or other fee to access this information. Open access to this documentation will ensure that third-party developers can connect to Microsoft's high-volume products just as Microsoft's other products do."
What is truly different is that Microsoft will also 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." In the past, Microsoft has been secretive on which of its patents actually apply to any given program or protocol.
And, after years of threatening open-source developers with possible legal attacks for never named patents, in its statement Microsoft said that it will now provide "a covenant not to sue open source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of these protocols. These developers will be able to use the documentation for free to develop products. Companies that engage in commercial distribution of these protocol implementations will be able to obtain a patent license from Microsoft, as will enterprises that obtain these implementations from a distributor that does not have such a patent license."
The announcement, however, did not include any details on the patent covenant.
In the next major point, Microsoft stated that when the company, "supports a standard in a high-volume product, it will work with other major implementers of the standard toward achieving robust, consistent and interoperable implementations across a broad range of widely deployed products." In the past, Microsoft has been well-known for adding proprietary extensions to open standards, such as its additions to the Kerberos authentication protocols.
The Windows giant also promised that it would "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." Microsoft, it should be noted, is nearing the climax in a fight to get its Open ISO standard. This move has been strongly opposed by ODF (Open Document Format) supporters.
The impetus for what at first glance appears to be a surprising change for the notoriously proprietary company came from Microsoft's changed legal landscape, which resulted from the need "to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations outlined in the September 2007 judgment of the European Court of First Instance (CFI)."
In that decision, Microsoft had to make available its WSPP (Work Group Server Protocol Program) and the MCPP (Microsoft Communication Protocol Program) to competitors. As a result of the EU (European Union) decision, Microsoft even had to make these protocols' secrets available to open-source groups like Samba that create Microsoft compatible programs under the GPLv3 open-source license.
In a press statement, Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel explained, "Through the initiatives we are announcing, we are taking responsibility for implementing the principles in the interoperability portion of the CFI decision across all of Microsoft's high-volume products. We will take additional steps in the coming weeks to address the remaining portion of the CFI decision, and we are committed to providing full information to the European Commission so it can evaluate all of these steps."