This openness stuff isn't as easy as it looks

Summary:Microsoft is trying hard to be more open. The amount of inside information on Windows Vista, Internet Explorer 7, and other new technologies coming directly out of Microsoft is unprecedented and mostly free of traditional PR restraints, which is remarkable. But changing entrenched habits isn’t easy. Case in point: The recent brouhaha over confidentiality restrictions in the end user license agreement (EULA) for Office 12.

Microsoft is trying hard to be more open. In fact, I’d bet that there are more bloggers from Microsoft than from any other company, in or out of the tech universe. The amount of inside information on Windows Vista, Internet Explorer 7, and other new technologies coming directly out of Microsoft is unprecedented. By and large, this content is free of traditional PR restraints as well, which is remarkable.

But changing entrenched habits isn’t easy. Case in point: The recent brouhaha over confidentiality restrictions in the end user license agreement (EULA) for Office 12.

Last December, I noticed that Microsoft’s army of Office bloggers (at least 17, by my unofficial count) and a large corps of external reviewers from print and online media had been given carte blanche to publish as much detail as they wanted about Office 12 Beta 1. That’s cool, unless you’re an official beta tester with a blog (like me) who is staring at an EULA that strictly prohibits any commentary of any sort:

The software, including its user interface, features and documentation, is confidential and proprietary to Microsoft and its suppliers. […]

[Y]ou may not disclose confidential information to third parties.  You may disclose confidential information only to your employees and consultants who need to know the information. You must have written agreements with them that protect the confidential information at least as much as this agreement. [ ...]

Confidential information does not include information that

  • becomes publicly known through no wrongful act;
  • you received from a third party who did not breach confidentiality obligations to Microsoft or its suppliers; or
  • you developed independently.

Pretty straightforward stuff. Microsoft bloggers can talk about Office 12, and so can reviewers at ZDNetActiveWin, PC Magazine, PC World, and about 2 million other sites. But if you were a beta tester running Office Beta 1, you weren't allowed to talk about it at all, except maybe to link to what someone else wrote.

If you’re trying to get a picture of what Office 12 is going to be like, you’re not going to get it from the blogosphere that this policy protects. Instead, you'll get the official explanation from a variety of Microsoft sources plus some “fair and balanced” overviews from reviewers who are typically working on deadline and with only a few days to try to make sense of a big, sprawling product. The really good stuff comes from people who are passionate about the product, are using it day in and day out, and can provide the up-close-and-personal details that give a full picture.

I complained about this policy last December 15 ("Scoble can talk about Office 12, but I can’t"). Robert Scoble responded with a link and a promise:

I’ll talk to the team about that. I think NDAs are often too restrictive and are ultimately counterproductive.

But nothing happened until February 2, when Josh at Windows Connected disclosed that he had gotten the official OK from Microsoft to blog about Office 12. I checked in with the president of Microsoft’s PR agency, Waggener Edstrom, and got the same thumbs-up.

And then the story turned into a ping-pong match:

  • A coordinator of the Office 12 beta program dismissed the report as a “rumor” and said the confidentiality requirement of the EULA was still in effect.
  • Scoble checked with his sources inside the Office team and said the official word was that press – including bloggers – are indeed allowed to write about Office 12 client apps.
  • A few days later, Scoble backtracked: “It turns out that this isn’t quite the case,” he wrote. “There are different NDAs given to different groups. … If you’re an MVP, in the Technical Beta or on the TAP program you’ll need to comply with the EULA of Beta1, which maintains confidentiality except in cases where the information is already public.”
  • The next day, I received an e-mail from a representative for the Office team confirming that technical beta testers can write about the client applications in Office 12 only if they’re among the group of press and reviewers recognized by Microsoft. “These folks (there are a few hundred of them) can blog all they want about client apps…”

All this happened over a period of less than one week. Case closed, right?

Well, not exactly. On February 9, one day after the issue had supposedly been settled, Office 12 technical beta testers received a follow-up e-mail that included this announcement:

[A]s a result of publicly disclosed Office "12" client application features and content, we are now allowing all testers to discuss publicly or blog about the features in the Office "12" client applications. This specifically refers to client-side features only in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, InfoPath, Access, Project, Visio and Publisher. All other Microsoft Office "12" Beta products, including Groove and all server products and capabilities, as well as any reference to server content, are still under NDA and therefore prohibited from public disclosure.

I won’t even guess at the intensity of the e-mail discussion that went on among different camps at Microsoft. There’s an old guard that still believes it can control the message as if blogs didn't exist. There’s a vanguard that believes open discussion is healthier in the long run. It’s encouraging to note that the advocates of openness won this round. Maybe the next battle will be a little easier.

Topics: Microsoft


Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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