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Deconstructing Microsoft's New Openness

Next time you get a traffic ticket, take the money to pay your fine, place it lovingly in a cheery greeting card, deliver it to city hall and declare in the most grandiose manner possible that you're "making a donation to the city." Then, you'll know exactly what it's like to be Microsoft.

Heck, you could even hold a press conference. That's what Microsoft did yesterday to announce its new openness initiatives, the basics of which RCPU managed to sneak into yesterday's issue. The conference call, which evidently required a "War Declared"-level media alert on Thursday morning, started brilliantly -- after waiting about 15 minutes past the start time, reporters finally heard some Microsoft official apologize for the late start and explain that it had been caused in part by "technical problems we had to solve." What, did Ballmer's PC blue-screen when he tried to open PowerPoint, or something?

Anyway, the crux of the story remains that Microsoft is publishing some 30,000 pages of documentation -- don't try to take that tome on your next flight -- revealing APIs, software protocols and heretofore concealed trade secrets. Of course, that's part of what the European Union has been demanding that Microsoft do for a while now -- and, as you might imagine, the EU still doesn't think that Microsoft is doing enough. After all, Microsoft has talked openness before but thus far hasn't really seemed to make it a corporate priority (understandably enough, given that the interaction between Microsoft applications is one of the company's key selling points). Now, with the EU's constant prodding, Microsoft is all about sharing...again.

This time, though, it's different. This time, Steve Ballmer was doing the talking. And Ray Ozzie. And the top lawyer, Brad Smith. This time, the announcement merited a "Victory in Europe"-style media alert. This time, Microsoft is serious...right? Well, more serious, anyway. Some of the documentation posted will let open source developers go beyond just creating programs that will work with Microsoft applications to actually extending some of the functionality of Microsoft's wares.

As long as it's not done for commercial purposes, of course. As far as software for sales goes, the open source folks are ostensibly under the same patent pressure that they've always been under -- except that now, Microsoft says that it's going to reveal exactly what patents it has and license that intellectual property for low fees. The company's promise not to sue developers working for non-commercial purposes also seems to open the door to let customers (and partners) use open source apps in their Microsoft shops without fear of recrimination.

For partners, the announcement is likely to have relatively little impact, except for those partners who now have access to APIs they might have needed in order to develop for or extend Microsoft applications and previously didn't have. Other than that, the announcement will probably serve to make Microsoft look a little less proprietary and a little more open than it has looked in the past, and with open source applications spreading in corporate IT departments -- especially in data centers -- that can't be a bad thing.

We've said many times before in this space that the EU should just leave Microsoft alone, and we suspect that EU regulators aren't finished with Redmond yet. But if pressure from the EU led Microsoft to open up a bit (and, apparently, it did), and if Microsoft's opening is positive for customers and partners, let's call yesterday's announcement a little bit of good news and wait and see what happens from there. This story is still far from being over.

One thing we could do without, though, is the faux self-sacrifice on Microsoft's part. Listening to Ballmer and Co. yesterday morning, we half expected a fake crying jag (not unlike the one Will Ferrell's character delivers at the end of Blades of Glory) and an emotional speech about the lengths Microsoft will go to in order to please its customers. Whatever. Just pay your EU traffic fine, Redmond, and don't pretend that you're publishing your APIs out of concern for your customers, support for open source or the goodness of your heart. Please. It's just kind of embarrassing. We all know the real story.

What's your take on Microsoft's new openness? Drop a line to [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on February 22, 2008


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