Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: Microsoft and Open Standards

Opinion: How many times does Microsoft have to lie about being open before people get it?

Kids know that when one kid lies all the time, the next thing out of his mouth is likely to be another lie.

So whats the IT buying publics excuse for thinking Microsofts new embrace of openness is anything other than a lie?

Its one thing for Microsoft to declare that it will open up its Office XML file formats and have them be recognized as a formal standard by Ecma. Its another thing entirely for this so-called standard to be a real open standard.

After all, this isnt the first, or even second, time that Microsoft has tried to con people into believing that it supports open standards.

A few years back, Microsoft announced that it was going to support the open network authentication protocol Kerberos. What it didnt announce was that it was adding its own proprietary extensions to it. That made it impossible to use Microsofts Kerberos with the truly standard-compliant versions.

The funniest thing about the whole, sad mess was when Microsoft announced that, it would open the specification… but to see it you had to accept a license agreement that included the phrase, "The Specification is confidential information and a trade secret of Microsoft."

In short, you could see it, but you couldnt use it. Now, thats "open."

Microsoft uses a similar theme with its MCPP (Microsoft Communications Protocol Program) to keep open-source programmers out of its server protocols, which it was forced to open up by the Department of Justice. Here, you can use the protocols, but only if you dont use them under an open-source license.

More recently, Microsoft agreed to try to settle a European Commissions antitrust ruling by opening up some server protocols… in a way that kept GPLed open-source programs from using them.

Detect a certain theme here? I think 5-year olds could.

Now, lets move to the present time.

Thanks to the truly open OpenDocument standard, Microsoft is actually in danger for the first time in years of losing some Office customers. Microsoft is running scared, so theyre going back to their tried and true bag of tricks.

Microsoft isnt announcing the exact details of its new license until Wednesday, but I dont have to see it to know there will be a drop of poison in it. After all, there always has been before.

You can already see some of it coming.

Microsofts proposed open standards are all about how to write to its Office formats, not how to read them. If you dont think thats a big deal, youve never worked with HTML and Internet Explorer.

/zimages/2/28571.gifA new Linux study suggests fundamental Microsoft credibility problems. Click here to read more.

Heck, this isnt even the first time that Microsoft has claimed that its Office XML formats were open. Brian Jones, an Office program manager who works on XML, claimed that the existing licenses for Office Open XML formats are, broadly speaking, open-source compatible, but even he admitted that "The patent language is difficult to read."

I think this older license is clear as glass.

The relevant line reads: "Microsoft may have patents and/or patent applications that are necessary for you to license in order to make, sell, or distribute software programs that read or write files that comply with the Microsoft specifications for the Office Schemas."

In other words, its an open standard so long as you license our patents, or any patents we might get. Royalty free patents or not, thats still trouble for any developer. For GPL developers, its a complete deal breaker.

Boy, thats open.

Im as certain there will be similar language in Microsofts new open standard as a kindergartener is certain that a kid who lies and is selfish with his toys yesterday will be exactly the same way today.

Ziff Davis Internet Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been working and writing about technology and business since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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