Microsoft Commits to Greater Interoperability

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2008-02-21

Microsoft Commits to Greater Interoperability

Microsoft rolled out its big guns, including CEO Steve Ballmer and Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, to underscore its commitment to the set of new interoperability principles announced Feb. 21 that are designed to increase the openness of its high-volume products and drive greater interoperability.

In fact, Microsoft's long-term success depends on its ability to deliver a software and services platform that is open and flexible and provides customers and developers with choice, Ballmer said during a media teleconference.

In addition to the four new interoperability principles that the company says will ensure open connections, promote data portability, enhance support for industry standards, and foster a more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open-source communities, Microsoft released more than 30,000 pages of documentation for its Windows client and server protocols.

This documentation of the API and communication protocols used by other Microsoft products was previously only available under a trade secret license through the Microsoft WSPP (Work Group Server Protocol Program) and the MCPP (Microsoft Communication Protocol Program).

Read more here about Microsoft's claim to support open standards.

The company also plans to release protocol documentation for other products, including Office 2007, over the coming months, and developers will not need to take a license or pay a royalty or other fee to access any of that information, Ballmer said.

"These principles were taken of our own accord and, while they do reflect our unique legal situation, they also reflect the challenges and opportunities of this more connected, service-oriented world, where added-value services are done at the other end of the wire," Ballmer said. "While this allows others to take share from us, it also allows others to add value to our products and offerings. There are risks that come with it but, on balance, it is favorable to us and should add value for shareholders."

These interoperability moves are also designed to further increase the openness of Microsoft's high-volume products such as Windows Server 2008, Windows Vista and Office 2007, and to drive greater interoperability and choice for its developers, partners and competitors, Ballmer said.

He also announced the launch of the Open Source Interoperability Initiative, which will provide a set of labs, technical content and other information to promote more interoperability between Microsoft software and open-source software.

In addition, a broad online interoperability forum will be created to facilitate an ongoing dialogue with customers, developers and open-source communities.

"We are also committed to living up to our legal responsibilities around the world, and we think this announcement is entirely consistent with those legal responsibilities," Ballmer said.

For his part, Ozzie said that when a new type of product or technology is introduced, innovation tends to trump interoperability and data portability. But as users put more of their data in these products, a new set of issues emerges.

"As an industry we have progressively learned that documents and data have a lifetime that frequently spans well beyond the lifetime of any application used to create it, and issues such as document preservation and portability have become vital concerns for customers," Ozzie said.

Also, as a direct by-product of the Internet age, every product has become interconnected in some way to most everything else, so interoperability between systems has also become a vital concern, he said.

Strategy Shift

The announcement represents an important strategy shift for Microsoft, one that affects its engineers, the development community and customers, Ozzie said, pointing to new add-in APIs that the company will be designing and supporting for Microsoft Office.

These will enable other developers to support their own document formats, and customers can choose any of those to be their default document format.

Next up was Bob Muglia, senior vice president for server and tools, who said that by the end of June, Microsoft will publish the protocols in Office 2007 that are used to connect to any other Microsoft products, including Exchange Server 2007 and SharePoint Server 2007.

"We will also take a .Net Framework-related protocol and publish that on MSDN as well. We are also announcing a document interoperability initiative to ensure that the documents created by users are fully exchangeable regardless of the tools they are using," he said.

Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, said the announcement covers the sharing of technology information and the licensing of the intellectual property rights relevant to that technology.

Bill Gates discusses all things software at Stanford. Read more here.

The principles announced provide access at no charge to all of Microsoft's trade secret rights relating to API rights in communications protocols in its high-volume products, and, moving forward, developers will no longer need a trade secret license for these, as had been the case until now.

"Instead, developers will be able to access this information in the same way they access any other page of content on the Web. The principles also provide royalty-free use of the patent rights relating to our APIs in these products, so that any other software that calls on these can do so without any concerns about patent issues," Smith said.

Microsoft is also providing a patent covenant not to sue open-source developers for the development of noncommercial distributions of these protocols, meaning that open-source developers will be able to use the documentation to develop implementations of these protocols without paying for a patent license.

But any company that uses these protocol implementations in commercial distributions will have 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, Smith said.

"This announcement represents an important step in a positive direction to address the obligations outlined in the September 2000 judgment of the European Court of First Instance. ... We are also committed to providing full information to the European Commission and other governments so they can evaluate all of these steps. We look forward to addressing any feedback provided by them in a constructive way," he said.

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