Some might expect me to rage yet again against an overreaching European Commission as it blows more smoke in its interminable battle with Microsoft. I've called the EC policy wherein they force Microsoft to document protocols deemed essential to interoperability then judge them not worthy of protections normally associated with public information (e.g. not patent worthy) a fancy form of expropriation designed to befuddle the Court of First Instance. I still think that is the case.
That doesn't change the fact that Microsoft needs to reach a grand compromise with the EC. Expropriation it may be, but fighting the EC would still make the situation worse.
That's why I am convinced that the best thing Microsoft could do at this point is call the EC's bluff and give away ALL the protocols they have thus far documented, with the exception of those bits deemed protection-worthy by Neil Barrett.
That's right, I'm suggesting that Microsoft do the corporate equivalent of rolling over and crying "uncle" (no idea why "uncle" is the surrender word), giving away some formerly quite valuable intellectual property. The benefits to Microsoft's competitors are obvious. What would be the advantages to Microsoft?
Considerable, in my opinion, assuming Microsoft can look past narrow market share interests towards the potential of a wider market oriented around Microsoft's technology.
A recent interview in the Wall Street Journal with Steve Bennett, a former executive at GE and current CEO of Intuit, offered some key insights. A relevant excerpt:
GE has to focus on, "What do we have to do to beat the competitors?" But if you think about QuickBooks, we've got 90% market share. What's more important? Beating someone that has 10% market share or converting 15 million people that aren't using accounting software? Who would you focus on?
In other words, Mr. Bennett is asking what is more important, defeating the last 10% of your competition, or growing the market? I agree with Mr. Bennett that growing the market makes the most sense, not only because it helps to avoid antitrust scrutiny, but because it generates long-term growth benefits in ways eradicating the competition won't.
Making Microsoft protocols free would clearly benefit open source software. Then again, open source software can enter markets where proprietary software faces more difficulties. This should not be viewed as a bad thing. Third parties that create new markets based around Microsoft technology can serve to create future opportunities for up-sale. Microsoft might in future find a way to monetize that market segment for themselves. Who would have thought Microsoft would ever offer a $3.00 Windows / Office combination to the developing world?
Once a ground is tilled, it's a lot easier to plant seed. I see very little downside to Microsoft enabling third parties to spend the time and money to create new customers who use Microsoft technology. Granted, those new customers aren't Microsoft customers, and if Microsoft wants to make them so, they need to innovate in ways that justify paying for Microsoft software. That, however, is something Microsoft has proven quite adept at doing. Microsoft's server market share continues to grow in spite of the popularity of a global Internet largely composed of protocols beyond Microsoft's control.
Besides...Microsoft should never shy from giving its employees a reason to chase innovation. Unlike Sun, Microsoft is better situated to derive benefit from free implementations of its technology. Microsoft just needs to trust that is the case, and resist the jitters which naturally comes from any attempt at tinkering with the cash machine that is Microsoft.