When Microsoft announced a week ago Monday that it had decided to open up its Office 12 XML file formats and had submitted the formats to be considered as a formal open standard by ECMA International, Alan Yates, the general manager of Microsofts Information Worker Strategy, said, "The new license that will accompany the Open XML format with the standards organization will go well beyond traditional standards licensing and will be very positive for the vast majority of developers, even open-source developers."
This new license was to have been released last Wednesday. Instead, all that Microsoft did was to release its Patent Protection Covenant for its Office XML formats.
Attorneys and analysts assumed that this would just be a building block for the new license.
We now know that the covenant is the be-all and end-all of the new license.
According to a Microsoft representative, "The covenant language is what was referred to as the updated license for the Open XML formats that will be submitted to ECMA International for the standardization process."
The only difference between Microsofts November 2003 open and royalty-free license for the Office 2003 Reference Schemas and todays Office 2003 license, according to the company, is that "Microsoft is offering a covenant not to sue for the Office 2003 Reference Schemas."
Microsoft also said it "will also be offering this same covenant with respect to the forthcoming specifications for the Office 12 schema specifications. More information about this program will be forthcoming at or before the time of the commercial availability of Office 12."
This change does not address the issues that open-source advocates have voiced previously against the license.
Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation and the author of the GPL, said in July that the current license governing the use of the formats is "designed to prohibit all free software. It covers only code that implements, precisely, the Microsoft formats, which means that a program under this license does not permit modification."
In addition, simply not suing developers for possibly violating Microsofts patents doesnt address the issues that many analysts, developers and attorneys have about the "openness" of Microsofts XML formats.
The Patent Covenant itself, according to an attorney who was given early access to it by Microsoft, isnt that good.
"The Microsoft covenant doesnt cut it, even if ECMA does adopt their formats, unless the covenant is beefed up. If Monday was meant to be a bombshell, this turns it in large measure into a dud," said Andrew Updegrove, a partner with Gesmer Updegrove LLP, a Boston law firm, and the editor of ConsortiumInfo.org.
Despite this, in Massachusetts, where a political battle rages between supporters of open standards and Microsoft advocates, Gov. Mitt Romney recently issued a statement saying, "The commonwealth is very pleased with Microsofts progress in creating an open document format. If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable open formats."
Sun Microsystems Inc. is pointing out to Massachusetts that the Microsoft open format may not be wearing any clothes.
In a letter to Thomas Trimarco, Massachusetts secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, Carl Cargill, Suns head of corporate standards, wrote, "Only after a specification has been approved by a broadly supported standards body—one that demonstrates acceptable levels of openness by being available to all competing products—should the Commonwealth consider including that open standard as one of its own."
Additional reporting by Mary Jo Foley