Microsoft's unpromising start

Microsoft is promising to be good in 12 ways. Just don't look too hard at the details

You cannot expect a corporation to behave itself when it has no body to be kicked nor soul to be damned. Microsoft, which has attracted many boots and curses in its time, wants us to know that nevertheless it has considered its ways and is willing to make amends. Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and the man who tells the company what it can get away with, has laid out 12 points of competitive principle. That's two more than Moses got, if not 20 percent more holy.

Eight of the 12 are restatements of Microsoft's legal obligations under the agreement reached in the 2001 antitrust case brought by the Department of Justice. Obeying the law is commendable, even if most companies don't feel the need to write it into their mission statement.

The promise to open up all the application program interfaces (APIs) is new, exciting and worth having. It's taken the company 25 years to get there — the first complaints started with the first versions of MS-DOS — but it finally feels able to compete on equal terms with everyone else. If it had made and kept this promise before, it wouldn't be in nearly so much trouble with the European Commission. It is the one promise to which Microsoft can, and will, be held.

The other promises fall flat. Some have the air of being made with General Counsel fingers crossed tightly behind General Counsel back. Phrases such as "Microsoft will generally" and "on commercially reasonable terms" have no place in statements of principle. Anyone who's dealt with the company for any length of time will know how flexibly it uses words such as commercial and reasonable — and the importance of asking "for whom?" whenever they're deployed.

Some are bizarre. Promise not to make Windows charge a fee for looking at a non-Microsoft Web site? Did anyone ever suggest otherwise? This is the first notion that anyone has ever thought such a thing, and it seems to have come from within the company. Like a small child promising solemnly that it will never, ever strangle the cat and hide the body in the sofa, the news is good and the implication unsettling.

And then there are the bits that are missing. There are no promises about privacy and security because they "don't belong as competition issues" — despite the almost instinctive way that companies use both to lock customers in and competition out. It is unthinkable that someone as savvy as Brad Smith would be unaware of this. These are complex, difficult and debatable areas, true — exactly where you need more and clearer statements of intent, not blanket dismissal.