Microsoft and its server protocols

Microsoft probably should have done less to antagonize the EC, trusting in the better judgement of the Court of First Instance to fix things. However, that doesn't mean that the EC isn't asking for too much.

The air in a court in Brussels continues to be heated as Microsoft and the EC fight over the validity of the ruling that charged Microsoft with abusing its market dominance. Teams of beer-addled Belgians strain at the relentless pull of ropes designed to prevent the Court of First Instance from rising, air-balloon-like, and ending up in Iceland.

Okay, maybe the rope thing was made up, though the beer IS very good in Belgium.

Earlier this week, the participants in this case debated whether Microsoft should be allowed to add technology to Windows that competes directly with third-party products, Microsoft's right to which I defended in my last post. Yesterday and today, however, the issue turned to the degree to which Microsoft must release information so that third parties can create server software that can function within Microsoft networks like Microsoft's own products.

Personally, I'm not overly concerned about interoperability protocols (I think Microsoft should offer them as licensed options irrespective of what the Commission says they must do), and think Microsoft should have rolled over and smiled cheerfully when the EC said they should add more detail to the documentation.

Even so, I do think that the commission is allowing Microsoft's competitors to throw rocks at them under cover of "rules" which allow companies to hide their communications with the EC.  Those "rules" are controlled by the EC, which is a bit like me getting to dictate the rules of evidence in ongoing litigation against me. It should seem highly suspicious to most people that none of those competitors have come forward to offer documentation related to that communication, and if Microsoft wasn't the defendant in this case, it would be.

I also think the EC isn't playing it completely straight with Microsoft, deciding to tell them late of the failure of their documentation to meet EC "standards" (the definition of which, of course, is controlled by the EC). But, so what? Nobody expects the EC to do anything less than revel in its ability to control the actions of a leading American software company. Far better to do everything they tell you to do, then fight it out in the Court of First Instance, which is really the only body who can do anything about unaccountable EC bureaucrats.

Microsoft claims that the EC is asking for so much information that it starts to undermine their intellectual property rights.  I wasn't sure what to make of this, but something the Samba folks said in an article which appeared today on ZDNet leads me to believe that there may be some substance to this.  From that article:

"The tiny device I have here in the palm of my hand is the sort of product that could emerge if the information required by the Commission were available," Andrew Tridgell said, holding a paperback-size storage server that he said could be turned into a work group server. Once it gives over the information, "Microsoft no longer has a stranglehold over the world's networks," he said.

I have stacks of problems with that paragraph. First, Tridgell is part of a group that aims to develop technology that makes it possible to create free (in the GPL sense, which as I've noted before, also means "free as in beer" in the real world) clones of Microsoft products. They aren't talking about LICENSING Microsoft's trade secrets. They are talking about wholesale copying of them.

In other words, Microsoft is being asked to turn over IP so that Tridgell and his friends can create free versions of products from which Microsoft makes its money. How is that anything less than theft of intellectual property, and if companies are forced to assist makers of free clones, where is the incentive to create new technology by proprietary companies?

Second, even if Microsoft released information that enables creation of these clones, Samba would STILL have to play catch-up, unless Microsoft somehow manages to release information about its updates while they are still working on them. Some of that lag might be reduced through beta access to preliminary documentation, but documentation is rarely as good as the final release documentation because the protocol definitions and APIs are changing. Must Microsoft release production-grade documentation BEFORE they are finished building the products being documented?

Third, how, pray tell, does Microsoft have a stranglehold on the world's networks? Does Microsoft own the Internet? Do they own the dominant web server platform? Do they have undue influence on HTTP or TCP/IP?

Microsoft is doing well from a server standpoint, to be sure, but they are far from the 92-95% market share held by desktop Windows, and certainly don't "control" global networks. Google is considered a strong competitor to Microsoft because they make technology that works using standard Internet technology and protocols. These are not things Microsoft controls.

Fourth, paperback-sized storage servers would exist even if Redmond got sucked into a short-lived black hole created by geeks finding new uses for toothpaste and discarded spinning amusement park rides. They just wouldn't use Microsoft's protocols. What the Samba folks are asking is to make free server software that looks like Microsoft software.

If they were talking about licensing technology, or allowing Microsoft to charge a fee for this IP, I would have little difficulty. Knowing what the Samba folks stand for, however, means this has nothing to do with building interoperability while letting Microsoft continue to own its intellectual property. Rather, this is about trying to place Microsoft IP in the GPL domain (and no, I'm not going to call GPL code "public domain," because given all the restrictions on use, it clearly isn't).

That shouldn't be a goal for a European Commission that claims to respect property rights. Given that the Court of First Instance has a history of slapping down the EC when they cross this line, I can say at least that there is a precedent for overruling them.

But oh well. I somehow doubt that the opinions of a blogger who works at Microsoft will have much influence on the case, mais si je dois, je peux le rediger en francais (mais pas tres bon francais, et sans les accents, parce que je n'ai pas le clavier juste).

"Huitante" et "nonante" sont meilleurs que "quatre-vingt" et "quatre-vingt-dix."

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