A Fresh Face on Standards?

Opinion: Microsoft officials reach out to change perceptions that the company hasn't learned its lesson when it comes to dealing with standards.

With recent complaints surfacing in courtrooms near and abroad over Microsofts anti-competitive behavior, one might believe that the Redmond, Wash., software giant hasnt learned any lessons, especially when it comes to dealing with standards. But some Microsoft officials want to change that perception by putting a new face on the companys standards effort.

The plan is to solidify and codify the approach to standards across the company. Thats the word from Tom Robertson, general manager of standards, and Jason Matusow, the new director of standards affairs for Microsoft, who recently embarked on a press tour to give Microsoft watchers the back story on the companys latest thinking in this area.

The standards team is reaching out to a wide variety of constituencies, Robertson said. Government officials in the United States and abroad are now more interested in standards. In addition, Microsofts competitors are more interested in using standards "to their advantage" (à la the OpenDoc vs. OpenXML battles), Robertson said. And customers these days are more attuned than ever to whats happening on the standards front, as well, he added.

Because standards participation at Microsoft has been "siloed" until fairly recently, said Matusow, Microsoft hasnt had a cohesive story to tell when explaining its standards philosophy or strategy.

"We have people on more than 400 standards efforts—that we know of," said Robertson. "And were not tapping into these people in the most efficient way possible."

Microsofts standards team is divided into several groups: a standards strategy group that is focused on the legal, regulatory and competitive environment, as well as intellectual property and membership rules; a standards affairs group for building the communication and community strategies around Microsofts positioning standards; and standards engagement and legal groups.

The folks who are involved in standards do everything from editing and authoring specifications to implementation and testing, the Softies said.

The team wants to "capture the tribal knowledge" inside Microsoft that exists around standards, Matusow said. To do this, the standards team is identifying key standards leaders (currently numbering six individuals) and encouraging them to meet regularly.

Just because Microsoft is beating the standards drum doesnt mean that it is planning to ramp up its standards involvement, however, Robertson cautioned.

"You can achieve interoperability in a number of ways," said Robertson. Among them: joint collaboration agreements, technology licensing and interoperability pacts.

"Standards are not always appropriate," Robertson said. And in the cases in which they are, "you should standardize only what is necessary."

Microsoft is relying on this golden rule in the European Union, as it continues to fight the European Commissions ruling that it open up its communications protocols so that its competitors can interoperate with Windows.

/zimages/5/28571.gifIs the EU barking up the wrong antitrust tree? Click here to read more.

"If you go into the implementation space, thats what should be left up to the market," Robertson said, in true Microsoft style.

The bottom line: Going forward, Microsoft may end up participating in 10 times as many standards efforts or maybe just a third of the ones in which it participates today, company officials said. But, however it chooses to engage, the company is hoping to present a more unified, well-educated and trained, and standards-savvy face to the public.

It remains to be seen whether the wider set of Microsoft constituencies will appreciate this sharper, more participatory effort. Will they see the new standards corps as cooperative players or more of the same team of bullies with a coat of polish? Well soon find out.

For more on Microsoft and Mary Jo Foley, check out Microsoft Watch at www.microsoft-watch.com.

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