Why you should care about Microsoft's open-source move

Summary:The software company has made a big show about opening up its APIs, but has it really changed its stance towards open source?

Microsoft has published details of its programming interfaces, according to a major announcement this week, intended to address criticisms by the European Commission. The move comes just before a key standards body vote and the forthcoming announcement of Windows Server 2008.

What has Microsoft announced?
The software maker says it will eventually publish "all" details of application-programming interfaces for its high-volume products, will list software patents that cover interoperability, and has promised not to sue non-commercial implementations of its products.

The announcement is intended to satisfy the European Commission. In 2004, the Commission found Microsoft guilty of antitrust violations and abuse of its dominant position in the market, a finding which Microsoft contested until October 2007. But early indications are that it will not satisfy the Commission. Nor does it remove Microsoft's threat to sue open-source developers.

The announcement also addresses another issue: Office's support for document formats. It includes a promise to allow developers to add document formats and make them the default in Office, but does not add out-of-the-box support for the industry standard Open Document Format (ODF).

Is this important?
It is clearly important to Microsoft. The company lined up its chief executive, Steve Ballmer, its top lawyer and vice president Brad Smith, chief software architect Ray Ozzie, and server and tools vice president Bob Muglia, and press released it as "Strategic Changes in Technology and Business Practices".

To the rest of the world, it is not so significant. "Microsoft is once again promising interoperability and adherence to standards, but its own version of each," said the Groklaw site. "Interoperability that is safe only for non-commercial software excludes Microsoft's number-one competitor, Linux… So, right there it tells you that this is a promise to do nothing that matters."

Developers will refer to the documentation that is put online, but will still have to pay licence fees to interface with Microsoft products, if they create software that is intended to be used in any commercial way — which most software is. 

This is only the latest in a series of announcements of openness from Microsoft. Like the previous ones, it will be observed and countered by the Commission and the open-source community. The difference with this announcement may be in the size of Microsoft's effort and the speed with which it has been dismissed by the rest of the world.

Is this about open source?
Not exactly. It is clearly made in response to pressure partly coming from open-source developers, and Microsoft's announcement promises to give open access to the programming interfaces to many major Microsoft products. However, Microsoft is not releasing any source code or — because it is keeping the caveat of non-commercial use — adopting an open-source licence model.

What are the details?
There is a lot of detail in Microsoft's press release, but these are some main points:

  • Microsoft will publish documentation for all application programming interfaces (APIs) and communications protocols in its high-volume products. These APIs will be published on the web, and will cover Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007. There will be no licence fee.
  • Microsoft will publish on MSDN over 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols. Previously, developers had to sign a trade secrets licence to get this documentation. Similar documentation for Office 2007 and other products will follow.
  • Microsoft will say which of its protocols are covered by patents, and will license those patents on "reasonable and non-discriminatory" terms, at what it promises will be "low royalty rates".
  • Developers can produce non-commercial implementations of Microsoft protocols for free. If they make commercial software, they will have to pay royalties.
  • Microsoft promises to document its support of industry standards and its extensions to those standards, so standards implementations are "robust, consistent and interoperable" across many vendors' products.
  • Office 2007 will get "greater flexibility" of document formats, so developers can plug in new formats and make them the default format. The company hasn't promised to support the standard ODF format out of the box.
  • Microsoft announced an Open Source Interoperability Initiative and an online Interoperability Forum, which will promote interoperability between open-source software and Microsoft products — using labs, events and technical content.

Why make this announcement, and why now?
Although Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer contends otherwise, this is clearly in response to the Commission's antitrust investigations against Microsoft, which have already made demands on Microsoft and may generate further formal complaints. The Microsoft press release calls it "an important step forward for the company in its ongoing efforts to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations outlined in the September 2007 judgment of the European Court of First Instance (CFI)."

The first batch of APIs to be opened up are simply those that the Commission and the US Department of Justice has demanded...

Topics: Tech Industry

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