Microsoft holds back a few in patent promise

Microsoft is promising not to use their patents against implementations of a large number of Web Service specifications. Are they making good on their "we won't be evil either" pledge? Is it enlightened self-interest? Or are they saving their ammo for more lucrative targets?

Back in July I wrote an article called "Microsoft: We won't be evil either" about general council Brad Smith's announcement of the "Windows Principles" - twelve tenets that would govern Microsoft's approach to competition in the future. Many people were (and still are) skeptical, but this week saw a tangible result of those tenets: for the conspiracy minded, Microsoft did leave out a few things a pledge to not assert any patents it might have pertaining to nearly three dozen Web services specifications. Assuming, of course, you don't sue them first, in which case all bets are off.

While this promise was greeted warily by the likes of Sun and IBM, it does make good business sense for the software giant. Some standards on their list such as SOAP and WSDL are so fundamental to the SOA buzzword-du-jour, and are so widely implemented, that any patent challenge of them would be unthinkable, even for Microsoft. Most of the rest are standards that Microsoft either created or had a large hand in creating, so obviously they want to see them succeed. Removing patent hurdles can only help with that effort.

With companies like Google, Yahoo, and HP on the ropes with questionable ethical practices in the past few months, the pledge makes sense from a simple PR point of view as well. In software development circles, Microsoft often evokes the type of loathing usually reserved only for politicians. They could certainly use a few extra points in the approval ratings.

However, for the conspiracy minded out there (you know who you are), Microsoft did leave out a few things. Compare the list on the Open Specification Promise page with the list on the Web Services Specification page and you'll find that these items are missing from the promise:

  • Devices Profile
  • Namespaces in XML
  • WS-PolicyAssertions
  • XML
  • XML Information Set

Does that mean Microsoft is getting ready to sue everyone over XML? Hardly, but one wonders why they didn't just include the whole list in their pledge.

Do you believe the patent pledge was taken in good faith, or is this an empty promise? Would your organization take such a step?

Update: See "Microsoft: oops, here's three more".