Rivals Skeptical of Microsoft's Move to Greater 'Openness'

Linux vendor Red Hat says it's heard it all before and views Microsoft's latest move with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Competitors in the open-source community responded with skepticism to Microsoft's Feb. 21 announcement that it is committing itself to greater openness and interoperability for its software products. Others tentatively welcomed the move.

Microsoft said it would adhere to a set of new interoperability principles designed to increase the openness of its high-volume products and drive greater interoperability.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer went so far as to say Microsoft's long-term success depended on its ability to deliver a software and services platform that was open and flexible and provided customers and developers with choice.

Linux vendor Red Hat did not mince words in its reaction to the news, with General Counsel Michael Cunningham saying it was not surprising to hear Microsoft finally state that interoperability across systems was an important requirement and that it was changing its approach on that front.

"Of course, we've heard similar announcements before, almost always strategically timed for other effect. Red Hat regards this most recent announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism," Cunninham said in a blog post.

If Microsoft really was committed to greater interoperability and openness, it would commit to open standards and stop pushing forward its proprietary, Windows-based Office file format for document processing, and rather embrace the existing ISO-approved, cross-platform Open Document Format, the industry standard for document processing, he said.

The software giant also needs to commit to interoperability with open source and extend its Open Specification Promise to all of the interoperability information that it has announced, instead of offering a patent license for its protocol information on the basis of licensing arrangements it knows are incompatible with the GNU General Public License, Cunningham said.

"There is no explanation for refusing to extend the Open Specification Promise to high-volume products, other than a continued intention on Microsoft's part to lock customers into its monopoly products, and lock out competitors through patent threats," he said.

Microsoft also needs to commit to competition on a level playing field rather than forestall competition from the open-source community, which the latest announcement appears carefully crafted to achieve, Cunningham said.

"How else can you explain a promise not to sue open-source developers as long as they develop and distribute only noncommercial implementations of interoperable products? This is simply disingenuous. The only hope for reintroducing competition to the monopoly markets Microsoft now controls is through commercial distributions of competitive open-source software products," he said.

For his part, Novell Chief Marketing Officer John Dragoon said he was encouraged by and in support of Microsoft's move to expand interoperability, although he acknowledged that it could have gone farther.

Dragoon said in a blog post that Novell believes the best way to advance the "open" agenda is through transparent and factual interoperability, adding that "one size doesn't fit all. Never did. Never will."

This latest announcement by Microsoft on expanded interoperability was a positive step for developers, customers and partners because it expanded choice, Dragoon said.

"Could it be bolder and broader? Of course. If the market demands it to be so, it will likely happen. In the meantime, I'm proud that Novell took a bold first step in accelerating the conversation around openness and interoperability with our Microsoft partnership over 15 months ago," he said.

Dragoon said Novell has found Microsoft to be a good partner that has kept their commitments, even though the two companies still compete aggressively on many fronts. "To the extent Microsoft pursues an agenda of open and interoperable, we are in full support," he said.

To Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, some of the announced details still seem less than ideal for open-source developers.

"But it is a first step. The world of software development has been marching in a steady direction toward being open and transparent. As Linux use continues to rise, so does the demand [by] customers to enable it to interoperate with Microsoft products. This announcement by Microsoft seems to indicate they want to participate in that march," Zemlin said.

Open-source enterprise content management provider Alfresco Software believes in offering customers a choice of the underlying stack on which it runs as well as the third-party software with which those users choose to integrate Alfresco, said Matt Asay, its vice president of business development.

Read details here about an Alfresco study that found Red Hat was benefiting from fallout over the Microsoft-Novell deal.

"We applaud Microsoft's efforts today to open its APIs and protocols to enterprises and third-party software vendors alike, making it easier for companies like Alfresco to interoperate with Microsoft products," said Asay, who has been asked by Microsoft to serve as a consultant on these interoperability initiatives,

"We look forward to putting Microsoft's data portability pledge to the test with an Alfresco-SharePoint integration, a combination that an increasing number of our customers want," he said.

Alfresco also hopes to work with Microsoft to bring open-standards-based, integrated content solutions to their joint customers, Asay said.

Dominic Sartorio, president of the Open Solutions Alliance, which recently issued a report saying interoperability issues were hampering open-source adoption, also welcomed Microsoft's overtures, saying they were an admission of the changing nature of the software industry and Microsoft's attempt to try to evolve by embracing openness.

But he too expressed caution, saying, "We will, however, wait and see how all this translates in the coming months."