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.