Microsoft opens up: Everything you need to know

The software company has made a big show about opening up its APIs, but has it really changed its stance towards open source?
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

Microsoft has published details of its programming interfaces, according to a major announcement last 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 Groklaw. "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 announcement, 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. Microsoft 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...

...should be made available. The announcement may be timed to prevent the Commission from upgrading other investigations into a formal complaint.

It also comes two days before a key vote at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), according to Andy Updegrove's Standards Blog, on the status of Microsoft's OOXML document format. "This will effectively give those participating in the discussions of Microsoft's OOXML document format no opportunity to fully understand what Microsoft has actually promised to do, while reaping the maximum public relations benefit," says Updegrove.

What about previous Microsoft open source efforts?
Microsoft's new open source site points out in its own FAQ that previous initiatives are continuing. These include CodePlex, the Microsoft open source project hosting Web site, and Port 25, the public portal for the Open Source Software Lab at Microsoft. For several years, Microsoft has offered limited access to Windows source code under its Shared Source Initiative, in particular to the education and government sectors, which will also continue.

Is anyone convinced?
Some in the Microsoft camp see this as a genuine acceptance by Microsoft that openness is eventually inevitable: "Smart executives are very careful about moving the apples around the apple cart," says Microsoft employee and ZDNet.com blogger John Carroll. "In spite of that, it is my sense that Microsoft's upper management realises now that moving those apples around in a well-documented and standardised fashion is not detrimental to the company as a whole."

Everyone else, from the European Commission down, is sceptical. "The Commission would welcome any move towards genuine interoperability," said the Commission in a statement. "Nonetheless, the Commission notes that today's announcement follows at least four similar statements by Microsoft in the past on the importance of interoperability."

"The world needs a permanent change in Microsoft's behaviour, not just another announcement," said Thomas Vinje, spokesman for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS), a pressure group whose members include IBM, Sun, Oracle, Red Hat and Nokia. "We have heard high-profile commitments from Microsoft a half-dozen times over the past two years, but have yet to see any lasting change in Microsoft's behaviour in the marketplace."

"Despite all the standards support rhetoric from Redmond, Microsoft has yet to implement ODF natively in its own systems," Vinje concludes. "The best proof of Microsoft's intention to live by the principles it has announced today would be for it to agree now to harmonise its efforts with the ODF standard, rather than trying to position OOXML as a 'better' competing standard."

Linux vendor Red Hat challenged Microsoft to extend its Open Specification Promise, a promise not to sue implementors of Microsoft protocols, which currently applies only to certain Web services technologies.

"Instead of offering a patent licence for its protocol information on the basis of licensing arrangements it knows are incompatible with the GPL -- the world's most widely used open source software licence -- Microsoft should extend its Open Specification Promise to all of the interoperability information that it is announcing today will be made available," said Michael Cunningham, Red Hat vice president and general counsel.

Editorial standards