Countering the Microsoft cynics

Countering the Microsoft cynics

Summary: Microsoft announced today plans to expand its interoperability principles, committing itself to higher standards of openness and portability in pursuit of interoperability nirvana. Fellow blogger Mary Jo Foley was skeptical, noting that Microsoft has said as much in the past, and since then made noises about patents it owns which may relate to Linux (my take: it does, but so what?

SHARE:

Microsoft announced today plans to expand its interoperability principles, committing itself to higher standards of openness and portability in pursuit of interoperability nirvana. Fellow blogger Mary Jo Foley was skeptical, noting that Microsoft has said as much in the past, and since then made noises about patents it owns which may relate to Linux (my take: it does, but so what?) and that antitrust authorities had to pry documentation for its protocols from Microsoft's clenched fists.

I found out about the announcement because I woke up this morning to find mail from Steve Ballmer in my inbox. That isn't anything too special, as the mail was sent to all Microsoft employees, a group among whom I count myself.

I have been saying for quite some time, however, that Microsoft needs to make this kind of commitment (most recently here, but the list is far longer than that). Microsoft's interests as ecosystem-builder aren't furthered by closed protocols, and the market has changed because computing is such an essential part of our daily lives that we no longer accept companies locking our information up in boxes that only they can unlock. The open source movement is a valid response to the reality that, in a world where computing is as ubiquitous as oxygen, we need to have access to the details of how we interact with that computing infrastructure.

So, given my past track record of advocating exactly the kinds of things Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie have committed the company to implementing, and given that I AM a Microsoft employee, I have one simple question to ask readers:

Do you think I am atypical for a Microsoft employee?

I don't think so, and I talk to Microsoft employees with a fair bit of regularity. Anecdotal evidence exists which belies the notion that the latest announcement is just pre-ISO-vote bluster. Ask yourself this: what are the odds that the Microsoft of 1995 would have released something as comprehensive to the outside world as OOXML? Love it or hate it, but its a simple fact that Microsoft has released more information about its present AND past office document formats than it has EVER released before.

Ms. Foley has pointed to a slide created by Sam Ramji, Director of Platform Technology Strategy, as proof that Microsoft isn't really serious about interoperability, and just wants to tie the world into its own technology. I think that misses the point entirely. Microsoft is a maker of PLATFORMS. If you can write against Microsoft technology as easily as you do against non-Microsoft technology because you've fully documented everything and made binding to its technology from any development tool easy, then the decision as to whether to write to Microsoft technologies or non-Microsoft technologies is as divisive as whether to write your user interface in HTML or XUL, or use ODF versus the ISO-ratified variant of PDF, or the choice to use ANY technology that competes for the hearts and minds of developers, corporations, service providers, and indirectly, end users.

Would it be nice if Microsoft didn't announce this as close to the ISO ratification vote as it is? Yes, it would be, but lets not ignore the fact that events sometimes create the necessary existential churn that make clear a better path towards the future. That applies to private individuals as much as it does to 75,000-person business entities like Microsoft.

Microsoft is a wildly successful company that makes billions in PROFIT every quarter. Smart executives are very careful about moving the apples around the apple cart. In spite of that, it is my sense (and I say this as a Microsoft employee privy to internal communications) that Microsoft's upper management realizes now that moving those apples around in a well-documented and standardized fashion is NOT detrimental to the company as a whole.

That's why I am willing to give Ballmer more benefit of the doubt than Foley.

Topics: Microsoft, Emerging Tech, Enterprise Software

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

53 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Benefit of the doubt

    [i]That?s why I am willing to give Ballmer more benefit of the doubt than Foley.[/i]

    It's much easier to trust the guy with the gun when you're standing next to him instead of in his sights.
    anonymous
  • Can take years to build trust

    I certainly hope you're right, but MS has 20 years of predatory practices and bad faith to overcome. Those of us disinclined to view MS as a benign institution are going to take some convincing, it's going have to be actions more than words, and it's not going to come anywhere near overnight.
    John L. Ries
  • Im sorry Mr Carrol but

    Thrusting MS and Steve Ballmer NEVER not even if my sweet life depend on it.

    For how many years MS act like a bully and a crook .

    For years MS was a bad player why now should we trust on there good will NEVER ......


    They will have to show a lots of good will and help around before a very large number of influential people will trust MS ever again .
    Quebec-french
    • I'm sorry Frenchie...

      But you should use a better translator engine before you post anything to this forum.

      On a more serious note so exactly when does the BS rhetoric around pointing to crap that happened 10 years ago STOP ??!?!?!?!

      HUH? Freaking can you leave it alone? I'm willing to bet that NOTHING Microsoft ever did has EVERY affected you. In fact, I'm willing to bet that you wouldn't have a job, much less a computer if if weren't for Microsoft so why don't you STFU!!!

      You have a nice day.
      BFD
      • I have no problems with "Frenchies" translation

        I'd rather read his honest opinions than
        your not-so-subtle attempts to curb freedom
        of speech.

        And those who died ten years ago are still
        just as dead today as they were then.

        What's the problem with talking about the
        past? Something you want to hide? Somebody
        you want to shut up?

        Take a dose of your own medicine. Don't be
        trying to peddle it off on others.
        Ole Man
        • Well...

          Was it your company that went extinct? Did you write a spell checker, a high-mem optimizer or something only to be CRUSHED by the Mighty Microsoft Juggernaut?

          You both and a number of other whiners are fixated on stuff that happend a decade ago that had ZERO impact on you personally. More over you can't seem to recognize that companies, just like people, do change. Your mindless hatred has blinded you to anything that has happened since and thus you are left behind while the rest of us have moved on to something far more productive.

          If that's where you and a number of others here prefer to be then great I guess. You can live with your delusional, echo chamber, woes me attitude.

          If you're ready to move past it the rest of us are here waiting.

          Have a Super Day.
          BFD
          • At least we don't ride the coat-tails

            of a big bruiser of a bully like a bunch of
            yapping little Chihuahuas, cheering him on
            because he is sooooo big and sooooo baaaaad!

            You have a nice day too.
            Ole Man
  • 20 years of monopolist's broken promises

    Who knows, maybe a snake isn't really a snake and perhaps shrimps can whistle too?

    I don't doubt John Carroll's sincerity, he's never lied or made statements based on FUD as far as I can tell. I hope he's right...but last time I checked, snakes really are snakes and I have yet to see a shrimp whistle. Oh well, there's always a first time I suppose.
    ThePrairiePrankster
  • A promise followed by threat

    From Ms. Foley's followup
    article of today: "Microsoft CEO
    Steve Ballmer made it clear that
    today???s announcements are not
    about Microsoft making its IP
    ???freely available.???

    ???We have valuable IP in our
    patents,??? Ballmer told
    conference call attendees. ???In
    some senses we are opening
    up, but we are retaining our
    valuable IP assets.???

    So the threat to sue those who
    do not toe the line remains.
    j.m.galvin
    • No change

      I'm sure those who thought MS has been doing the right thing all along would be disappointed were it otherwise.
      John L. Ries
  • RE: Countering the Microsoft cynics

    We'll just have to wait how this one turns out, I just have the feeling that we're talking about one sided openness with to many strings attached to it.

    But then again, I'm still hearing the same saber rattling as ever from Mr. Ballmer et al.

    Lets' just wait how this one turns out...
    tombalablomba
  • please....

    M$ Standards are nothing without the code behind GPLed.
    Nobody would use then in OSS, since the existing standards are better than M$ standards.
    Linux Geek
    • MS doesn't have to release any code at all

      But if they're going to disclose protocols, then they should be free for all to use (without conditions) and developers using them should be able to distribute their code (or not) as they see fit.

      Looks like what we have here is yet another effort at minimal compliance (I'm sure all parents know what I mean).
      John L. Ries
  • It's not cynicism...

    ... to expect Mr. Ballmer to make decisions which benefit Microsoft. If he's willing to provide open source developers with a "covenant" not to sue them, for example, he's unwilling to forego patent protections. That means commercial distributors of open source and organizations which receive open source software from distributors without protection.

    The open source developers are not worth suing individually even if Microsoft were willing to take them to Court. The company's target is commercial competitors, and Microsoft will assure that every potential customer knows open source has no IP advantage.

    Well, Microsoft has also targeted GPLv3 and Mr. Stallman's purest form of open source philosophy. Obtaining agreements makes good commercial sense, but is subject to strictures, so conflict is inevitable. Let's see if there are moderates among open sourcers or only those who wander ahead of proprietary software warning Unclean, unclean.



    This comment justifies calling your views idiosyncratic:

    ... the market has changed because computing is such an essential part of our daily lives that we no longer accept companies locking our information up in boxes that only they can unlock.

    [Sure we accept that. For many purposes we are loyal to our brand and don't notice, let alone care if nothing else can read files we never see.]

    The open source movement is a valid response to the reality that, in a world where computing is as ubiquitous as oxygen, we need to have access to the details of how we interact with that computing infrastructure.

    [People care how "we interact with that computer infrastructure"? John, you need a wider circle of friends. You may be acquainted with everyone who cares to know deeply what the software looks like and how it works.]


    Mr. Ballmer's business considerations probably will lead to higher profits than would your more idealistic view.

    Call me cynical.
    Anton Philidor
    • Of course...

      ...higher profits are of enormous concern to stockholders and employees, but of little concern to the end user, who is much more interested in the quality of the product, whether it meets his wants/needs, how much it costs, and what kinds of strings (call them "indirect costs") are attached to it.

      As long as the vendor is viable, his customers really don't care how much money he makes.
      John L. Ries
    • Not really

      [i]... the market has changed because computing is such an essential part of our daily lives that we no longer accept companies locking our information up in boxes that only they can unlock.

      Sure we accept that. For many purposes we are loyal to our brand and don't notice, let alone care if nothing else can read files we never see.[/i]

      Microsoft's moves to XML-based file formats predated OOXML by many years, and Microsoft's embrace of XML has been a long term strategy. I know I wanted to have more access to the inner workings of the office document formats, if nothing else than to avoid having to always load the entire Office application in order to parse a binary file. Far better to be able to parse the XML format of the document, making streamlined task-specific programs that turn the document into a better participant in the enterprise.

      ENTERPRISES wanted XML formats, and though not every consumer will know the difference between MP3s or Sony's ATRAC file format, they will quickly understand the basics when faced with the inability to use their product with anybody else's devices.

      Understanding the inner workings isn't the same thing as being affected by them...and companies (still the largest purchaser of IT products) are quite educated, indeed, about what kinds of things their software does.

      [i][People care how "we interact with that computer infrastructure"? John, you need a wider circle of friends. You may be acquainted with everyone who cares to know deeply what the software looks like and how it works.[/i]

      I live in LA, and most of my friends are not programmers. They do, however, understand basic things, like "my iTunes music won't work on my friends player." They see effects, even if they don't understand causes.

      [i]Mr. Ballmer's business considerations probably will lead to higher profits than would your more idealistic view.[/i]

      Well, first, I think Ballmer's view isn't the Microsoft view of the 1990s, and second, I think a closed system view will merely lead to the slow deflation of Microsoft relevance.

      They will NEVER make pure open source systems, but then again, that's like saying that America will NEVER be socialist, even while understanding the value of a national education policy that ensures that every citizen can read and write, or (possibly) the need for a national health care policy (both of which, I think, are perfectly in line with that artifical construct known as market capitalism).

      The extremes rarely are optimal.
      John Carroll
      • Effects

        How many people understand how a television works?

        How many people are going to be surprised when the set stops working a year from now? How many people are going to be displeased by having to obtain a box (or a new set) in order to continue doing what they did without problems the day before?

        How many people know that electrical sockets in Europe are different from those in the US?

        Effects - plug in the television, turn it on, watch it - are what people understand. There are many well paid people working to assure that happens, but the people who pay the money are usually not interested.

        Similarly, yes companies are "quite educated, indeed, about what kinds of things their software does." A spreadsheet program does spreadsheets, and employees know quite a bit about how to use them. But the interest in learning probably doesn't extend to the technical specifications of formats. Except for specialists.

        So long as most companies have the same software the uniqueness to one software provider of formats will not be known. When a problem arises, the vendor of the software or those responsible for making it useful is/are blamed. An explanation of Why the failure occurred is not of great interest.

        If "we no longer accept companies locking our information up in boxes that only they can unlock", it's not because of some theoretical principle of openness. We want our devices to work as we expect they should, and expect solutions to appear when they don't. Technicalities are not important.



        Mr. Ballmer knows that compnaies want open source and Microsoft products to work well together. To break into prior Unix-realm markets he's willing to accept the complications. And he's willing to keep developers by providing any information requested so long as that contributes to sales.

        Looking at these promises I see careful compromises to provide customers the effects they want. And not acceptance of a princple )openness) that aids competitors. Mr. Ballmer's rhetoric may be changed, but the search for profit continues.
        Anton Philidor
        • True, but...

          [i]Effects - plug in the television, turn it on, watch it - are what people understand. There are many well paid people working to assure that happens, but the people who pay the money are usually not interested.[/i]

          But...televisions always support PAL in Europe, and NTSC in the US (and anyone can get the specs to work with the other). Power sockets are different in Europe, but they are consistently different in a particularl region. People wouldn't complain if someone made a power cord that didn't work with any of the de facto standards in a region. No, they wouldn't complain...they wouldn't buy it in the first place.

          I'm not talking about making everyone use ONE standard. I am talking about documentation and openness, and consumers DO want that, even if it takes people who understand what software is an does to put a finger on the nature of the problem.

          [i]Similarly, yes companies are "quite educated, indeed, about what kinds of things their software does." A spreadsheet program does spreadsheets, and employees know quite a bit about how to use them. But the interest in learning probably doesn't extend to the technical specifications of formats. Except for specialists.[/i]

          I don't agree. Like I said, I did want a way to access the office document formats in a past company, because I wanted to change a few fields in a spreadsheet in an incoming excel file. I could do that by loading the entire Excel application, but that was like smashing an ant with a steamroller.

          It is useful to be able to automate the entire Excel application, but it is also useful to have some visibility into the details of the format. Consumers benefit, because developers find the document to be that much more useful and easy to integrate into existing infrastructure.

          [i]So long as most companies have the same software the uniqueness to one software provider of formats will not be known. When a problem arises, the vendor of the software or those responsible for making it useful is/are blamed. An explanation of Why the failure occurred is not of great interest.[/i]

          Fair enough, and Microsoft still has their 90+ market share in desktops. On the other hand, if in 1995 there were a million computers in the world (gross underestimate, but...), today there are 1 trillion. So, that 10% is quite huge.

          There will NEVER be a situation where one company constitutes 100% of the market, just like there will never be one car that everyone likes, one brand of clothes that suits everyone, etc. Gravitation towards one base platform might have more of a natural basis than it does in cars (like I said, software needs standards), but on the other hand, it is very hard to make one OS (one protocol, one doc format, etc.) suit everyone.

          [i]If "we no longer accept companies locking our information up in boxes that only they can unlock", it's not because of some theoretical principle of openness. We want our devices to work as we expect they should, and expect solutions to appear when they don't.[/i]

          But in software, "working as they should" is part and parcel of openness, IMO. Only developers might be able to put that into words, but it is a fact nonetheless.

          [i]Mr. Ballmer's rhetoric may be changed, but the search for profit continues.[/i]

          The day Ballmer stops searching for profits is the day I stop working for Microsoft. I'm not saying Ballmer should stop looking for profits. I'm just saying that too much closure is bad for business.

          Microsoft could keep 100% of its software closed source while using open protocols. The reality is that Microsoft will have more open source product in the future (IMO), though mixed in with properietary bits that serve as the source of revenue.

          That is as it should be. I am not advocating that Microsoft be an open source company (at least, not 100%). I am advocating openness. THere is a difference.
          John Carroll
          • but...

            Well John, with TV's & power plugs you can get an adaptor so that everything will work. The TVs manufacture is happy since sales will stay up and the adaptor company makes money but in turn increases the profits for the TV manufacture. On the other hand Microsoft is well known for squishing the adaptor company (after Market Company) like a bug. Perhaps they have leaned to adapt although I doubt it, with Microsoft it is usually a ruse and nothing more.
            aussieblnd@...
          • Resolving the difference.

            The statement:

            Microsoft should be exactly open enough to allow developers to work effectively on Microsoft products.

            ... seems to satisfy both of us. My concern about being excessively open to the benefit of competitors is met. And so is yours about being excessively restrictive.

            Customers are also satisfied because they get the effects they want without having to worry about the technical issues of specialists.

            And even those opposed to closed systems can be pleased, because working effectively means being able to combine software from different companies/organizations in what has been exclusively a Unix realm. That Microsoft is not disadvantaged and that a customer can go all Microsoft perhaps more easily than all non-Microsoft are not relevant issues.

            What disappears with this formulation is arbitrary lock-in (using secrets, not features) and the theoretical principle that openness is a good more valuable than a company's self-interest. And that the public including customers has any... enthusiasm other than making software work as expected.

            Surprising how many complexities arise when software is supposed to respond to ideas that can't be written into the code itself.
            Anton Philidor