Microsoft’s Interoperability Announcement

amcpherson's picture

Yesterday Steve Ballmer announced “a significant change in how we share information about our products and technologies.” Apparently, Microsoft doesn’t appear to see Linux as the “cancer” it once did; or at least they seem confident it’s not contagious through their APIs. The publication (hopefully without any restriction) of protocol documentation and APIs should help open source developers. Just last year, for instance, the Samba team had to pay a significant fee to view those same documents; most open source developers would not have had the resources (financial, legal or otherwise) to navigate those waters. If those restrictions are gone, that is a good thing.

Throughout its history, Microsoft has operated as an island, cloistering
itself away from the competition and using its market position to
isolate competing technologies. As we’ve said before, many corporations making $12b a year in net profit would operate in a similar way. But the landscape is changing. An interconnected pangea – not geographic isolation – has already arrived.

With the rising demand from customers and their governments (and courts) for greater transparency and interoperability, Microsoft has to listen. The scales have been tipped toward “open.” I hope the execution of this announcement will match its message and that the result will be truly greater access and interoperability for open source developers and their products. The only concrete thing to say is: the devil’s in the details.

There are some good things discussed in the announcement, but Microsoft could certainly go farther:

1. The RAND patent provision terms discussed in the announcement are incompatible with most widely used open source licenses; we hope Microsoft can find terms that are compatible with a broad set of open source technology.

2. Offering a patent covenant not to sue to “non-commercial” open
source developers is not a significant change or offer, in my (admittedly non-legal) opinion. It sounds good at first glance but in practice I don’t think will change anything.

3. If Microsoft really wants to take a stand for open standards and open
source, take OOXML off the table at the upcoming ISO meeting in Geneva
and support the existing, ISO ratified document standard ODF. Then I would agree the announcement was significant.