Well, it's now clear what the real motivation for the recent interoperability announcement last week was. It was an attempt to forestall a $1.35 billion fine (€899 million, which wouldn't have been as bad if the exchange rate was still the 0.85 euros to the dollar it was when I left Ireland back in 2004). Yes, I know Microsoft's official stance is that the timing was purely coincidental. First things first, though I am a Microsoft employee, I do not speak in any official capacity for Microsoft. So I say as an INDIVIDUAL that I think that the official explanation is nonsense. I think we (in the corporate Microsoft sense) would do ourselves a lot of good from a public relations standpoint if we didn't release PR "baffle" that no one in their right mind is going to believe for two seconds.
Do I think the fine is fair? I don't think that matters very much. The fine just is, and given the ill-defined nature of antitrust and the fact that EC's interpretation of things was largely upheld in the appeal before the Court of First Instance, there really isn't a whole heck of a lot Microsoft can do if it is unwilling to stop selling product to the European market.
That isn't necessarily a problem, however, so long as the EC doesn't do anything that actively destroys Microsoft's business. On that count, I really, really, really, REALLY don't think they are asking anything that runs counter to Microsoft's core identity as maker of platforms. If Microsoft was forced to implement outside protocols dictated by EC bureaucrats, or worse, forced not to use some of its own, that would be one thing. No free company should be forced to use any technology it does not want to use (we'll see what falls out of the Opera investigation).
I have zero difficulties, however, with Microsoft being forced to document all the protocols it creates and uses internally and making them available to third parties. That doesn't clash with Microsoft's core identity as maker of platforms - if anything, it enhances it. No, they aren't going to be able to charge what they had hoped in the past, but then again, wider access through lower cost barriers will ensure Microsoft ongoing influence over the technology used in computers. Such an approach works better in a software world where the importance of open systems only grows in importance.
I firmly believe that the demand for open protocols is a reflection of the essential role computing now plays in our lives, irrespective of some of the more extreme demands of certain groups within the "open systems" constituency. Granted, those who know as much about their computer as the inner workings of their TV set might not articulate that, but a market is always a mix of the knowledgeable and the less knowledgeable, and given the highly configurable nature of computers, there is a bigger group of knowledgeable people participating in the computer marketplace than in the TV market.
Like I said, I don't believe the timing of the announcement was coincidental (though in my previous blog, I though it was just aimed at the debates in the ISO over ratification of OOXML). That doesn't mean that the existential churn created by the EC or its difficulties in getting OOXML ratified is any less real. Whether or not Microsoft is being forced down this path, I think the result - a Microsoft that understands that it lies at the computing crossroads and thus must be more open than is expected of less influential companies - will benefit Microsoft.
It's worth remembering that in the battle with Netscape in the late 90s, after the smoke cleared, IE 4.0 was the leader in HTML standards implementation. If they had maintained that status, I doubt many people would have seen much point in Firefox.
I've identified some of the red lines that Microsoft needs to work to convince the EC not to cross. Being open, however, is critical to the modern software company, and though it clearly wasn't the intent of the EC to make Microsoft a better company, I do hope that Microsoft's management lets that happen.