Europe Has Mixed Reaction to Microsoft Openness

The EU issues a skeptical statement, but European analysts agree that the move will ultimately benefit Microsoft.

Officials with the European Union are skeptical of Microsoft's announcement that it is opening up its technology to the outside world. However analysts in Europe have welcomed the move, claiming Microsoft and users will benefit in the end.

The software maker announced Feb. 21 its four interoperability principles and said it will open up all APIs in its high-volume products, such as Windows and Office, a move that despite EU rulings in the past, Microsoft has shied away from. The four principles are based on ensuring open connections, data portability, support for industry standards, and creating a more open conversation with customers and the IT community.

Microsoft officials said they made the move in response to the changing IT landscape and to help it comply with the September judgment of the European Court of First Instance, which ruled that Microsoft had abused its dominant position and fined the company $613 million for infringing on European Commission Treaty rules.

In a conference call, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the move was not just about issuing principles but also about actions. He said 30,000 pages of software documentation went up on Microsoft's Web site Feb. 21 and that there is more to follow. He added that Microsoft has taken the steps independently and that although they comply with the EU ruling, the principles were done of its own accord.

However, the EU responded that it has heard these words before. In a statement, the EU said: "This announcement does not relate to the question of whether or not Microsoft has been complying with EU antitrust rules in this area in the past. The Commission would welcome any move towards genuine interoperability. Nonetheless, the Commission notes that today's announcement follows at least four similar statements by Microsoft in the past on the importance of interoperability."

Nigel Swycher, head of technology at European law firm Olswang, said Microsoft has been taking steps for a number of years to comply with the EU, so it may have been hoping for a more sympathetic ear. However, he said, "It will be a while before the EU stops looking at companies such as Microsoft that have such large market shares. The EU won't be anything but delighted with today's news, but they will want it to continue as well."

But the EU statement also said it will "verify ... whether the principles announced today would end any infringement were they implemented in practice, and whether or not the principles announced today are in fact implemented in practice."

However analysts in Europe told eWeek that they found it tough to be so skeptical about the move.

"Opening up all of its APIs is more than it has ever opened up before," said John Abbott, an analyst at The 451Group. "I do think Microsoft was nudged in this direction by the EU rulings, but it was also learning from the social networking phenomenon, such as Facebook and MySpace, and the open-source network that is able to get things done through the community."

Abbott also said Microsoft will benefit from the move. "Many users have been frustrated by the lack of interoperability, especially in applications such as SharePoint, which many users see as an anchor application. This may just take the wind out of the open-source sails," he said.

Tony Lock, an analyst at U.K. research company Freeform Dynamics, said the move will work in Microsoft's favor. "Customers are demanding this kind of interoperability - it costs users a lot of money just to make technology work together, and anything that helps this will be welcomed by customers," Lock said.

He said it also takes away much of the risk factor for customers and therefore may encourage many into making quicker buying decisions.

"Microsoft has been under pressure from outsiders, such as the EU and from customers, but if it does this well, it could walk away taking full advantage of the situation," Lock said.