Microsoft vs. DOJ: It's all in the APIs

Application programming interfaces are a geeky nugget of technology, but whoever controls them controls the tech world -- a fact Microsoft and the DOJ know all too well.

As both sides in the Microsoft Corp. antitrust trial rush to paint their perspective of the software giant's future -- niggling over handfuls of words and phrases throughout a flurry of last-minute legal documents -- their filings are spotlighting a geeky nugget of technology that for years has spelled dominance for Microsoft: the API.

APIs, or application programming interfaces, are hooks in software that allow applications to work with the operating system. They've been compared with an electrical socket, which allows outside products (in this case, applications) to plug into the electrical system (in this case, Windows).

Control of the APIs themselves, or control over who gets them, has been crucial to Microsoft (msft) because the company has been able to ensure that its applications work better with the operating system than any other applications -- and that non-Microsoft applications makers get access to Windows technology later, if at all.

"This is really the core of Microsoft's business," Gartner Research Director Chris LeTocq said. "Microsoft is in business to leverage APIs. That's a key element of the successful market share it has."

In fact, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has ruled that Microsoft broke the law by thwarting other technologies, such as Java and Netscape Navigator, that might provide alternative APIs for developers to write to -- and by leveraging its dominant Windows operating system, and the accompanying APIs, to move into the browser market.

'Microsoft is in business to leverage APIs -- that's a key element of the successful market share it has.'|Gartner Analyst Chris LeTocq Government trustbusters are trying to put an end to that leveraging -- not only through their proposal to break up the company, but also through a series of proposed conduct restrictions that would, among other things, require Microsoft to make its APIs open and available.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is fighting vehemently to prevent that from happening.

On Thursday, when the company had a chance to edit the DOJ's antitrust remedy proposal, it added language stating that "nothing in this provision shall require Microsoft to disclose any internal interfaces of a Microsoft Operating System Product."

Throughout its edits of the DOJ proposal, Microsoft tried to draw a distinction between external APIs (which the company is willing to give away and already often does) and internal APIs (which it is fighting tooth and nail to keep under wraps).

In Wednesday's filing, the company added language to the DOJ document that redefined APIs as external functions only: "APIs do not include internal interfaces or protocols used by any Microsoft Operating System Product or Middleware."

The phrase was a red flag for Andrew Schulman, co-author of the books "Undocumented Windows" and "Undocumented DOS."

"The key word here is 'internal' and what that really means," Schulman said.

Microsoft has come under fire for not documenting some of the internal Windows APIs, a move that competitors claim gives the company's own software makers a huge advantage over external developers because they know about certain features in Windows that others don't.

As with any legal battle, it's a matter of semantics. For example, the DOJ wants Microsoft to provide APIs simultaneously to all computer makers -- meaning that, say, word processing company Corel Corp. would get them at the same time as the new Microsoft applications company (if Microsoft is indeed broken into separate companies).

On the other hand, Microsoft is fighting broad language in the proposal, which it claims could be construed to mean it has to release Windows internal source code -- not just external APIs that would allow WordPerfect to work smoothly with the operating system -- to Corel.

As both sides in the Microsoft Corp. antitrust trial rush to paint their perspective of the software giant's future -- niggling over handfuls of words and phrases throughout a flurry of last-minute legal documents -- their filings are spotlighting a geeky nugget of technology that for years has spelled dominance for Microsoft: the API.

APIs, or application programming interfaces, are hooks in software that allow applications to work with the operating system. They've been compared with an electrical socket, which allows outside products (in this case, applications) to plug into the electrical system (in this case, Windows).

Control of the APIs themselves, or control over who gets them, has been crucial to Microsoft (msft) because the company has been able to ensure that its applications work better with the operating system than any other applications -- and that non-Microsoft applications makers get access to Windows technology later, if at all.

"This is really the core of Microsoft's business," Gartner Research Director Chris LeTocq said. "Microsoft is in business to leverage APIs. That's a key element of the successful market share it has."

In fact, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson has ruled that Microsoft broke the law by thwarting other technologies, such as Java and Netscape Navigator, that might provide alternative APIs for developers to write to -- and by leveraging its dominant Windows operating system, and the accompanying APIs, to move into the browser market.

'Microsoft is in business to leverage APIs -- that's a key element of the successful market share it has.'|Gartner Analyst Chris LeTocq Government trustbusters are trying to put an end to that leveraging -- not only through their proposal to break up the company, but also through a series of proposed conduct restrictions that would, among other things, require Microsoft to make its APIs open and available.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is fighting vehemently to prevent that from happening.

On Thursday, when the company had a chance to edit the DOJ's antitrust remedy proposal, it added language stating that "nothing in this provision shall require Microsoft to disclose any internal interfaces of a Microsoft Operating System Product."

Throughout its edits of the DOJ proposal, Microsoft tried to draw a distinction between external APIs (which the company is willing to give away and already often does) and internal APIs (which it is fighting tooth and nail to keep under wraps).

In Wednesday's filing, the company added language to the DOJ document that redefined APIs as external functions only: "APIs do not include internal interfaces or protocols used by any Microsoft Operating System Product or Middleware."

The phrase was a red flag for Andrew Schulman, co-author of the books "Undocumented Windows" and "Undocumented DOS."

"The key word here is 'internal' and what that really means," Schulman said.

Microsoft has come under fire for not documenting some of the internal Windows APIs, a move that competitors claim gives the company's own software makers a huge advantage over external developers because they know about certain features in Windows that others don't.

As with any legal battle, it's a matter of semantics. For example, the DOJ wants Microsoft to provide APIs simultaneously to all computer makers -- meaning that, say, word processing company Corel Corp. would get them at the same time as the new Microsoft applications company (if Microsoft is indeed broken into separate companies).

On the other hand, Microsoft is fighting broad language in the proposal, which it claims could be construed to mean it has to release Windows internal source code -- not just external APIs that would allow WordPerfect to work smoothly with the operating system -- to Corel.

"They want to make sure they don't have to open up their entire code base," Giga Information Group analyst Rob Enderle said of the changes. "Microsoft will protect to the death anything that threatens its intellectual property."

Microsoft has already done several flip-flops regarding its willingness to give ground on APIs throughout the two years the antitrust case has dragged on.

For example, Microsoft has vacillated from claiming that it already publishes all of its APIs to complaining that the requirement would unfairly punish the company by forcing it to forfeit its crown jewels.

Moreover, company President Steve Ballmer has stated publicly several times during the past two years that Microsoft might be willing to open-source parts of Windows and/or its APIs.

But in the latest slew of antitrust filings, Microsoft called any attempt by the government to open up its middleware and/or so-called "internal" Windows interfaces the equivalent of robbing Microsoft of its core intellectual property.

The company has one more chance to make that argument.

On Thursday, Jackson gave the DOJ until Monday to respond to Microsoft's edits. Then Microsoft has two days to reply to that document.

After that, the judge is slated to issue his long-awaited final judgment, which is expected to include breaking up the company into separate parts.

LeTocq said the requirement to open the APIs, if it's included in the final ruling, would give non-Microsoft software makers a boost.

"It clearly starts to provide a more competitive landscape," he said.

"They want to make sure they don't have to open up their entire code base," Giga Information Group analyst Rob Enderle said of the changes. "Microsoft will protect to the death anything that threatens its intellectual property."

Microsoft has already done several flip-flops regarding its willingness to give ground on APIs throughout the two years the antitrust case has dragged on.

For example, Microsoft has vacillated from claiming that it already publishes all of its APIs to complaining that the requirement would unfairly punish the company by forcing it to forfeit its crown jewels.

Moreover, company President Steve Ballmer has stated publicly several times during the past two years that Microsoft might be willing to open-source parts of Windows and/or its APIs.

But in the latest slew of antitrust filings, Microsoft called any attempt by the government to open up its middleware and/or so-called "internal" Windows interfaces the equivalent of robbing Microsoft of its core intellectual property.

The company has one more chance to make that argument.

On Thursday, Jackson gave the DOJ until Monday to respond to Microsoft's edits. Then Microsoft has two days to reply to that document.

After that, the judge is slated to issue his long-awaited final judgment, which is expected to include breaking up the company into separate parts.

LeTocq said the requirement to open the APIs, if it's included in the final ruling, would give non-Microsoft software makers a boost.

"It clearly starts to provide a more competitive landscape," he said.