World not open to Microsoft promises

Microsoft has promised more openness, more freedom. It looks like more of the same
Written by Leader , Contributor

The most impressive aspect of Microsoft's statement on Thursday in favour of caring and sharing wasn't in anything the company said. It was the speed at which the world, or that part of it not in a commercial relationship with Microsoft, digested the information and replied: Heard it before. Not good enough.

That may seem an unfair attitude towards a company claiming a new commitment to openness. We've learned by now that it's what it does, not what it says, that matters.

Microsoft is behaving exactly as it should, from its point of view. True openness and interoperability will not benefit the company in the short or even the medium term. In the long term, Microsoft will benefit as much as everyone else, as ingenuity is released to tackle new, not old, problems. But monopolies understand only one long-term plan: the status quo.

Thus, every statement Microsoft makes must be seen as born from a intrinsic, even instinctive desire to maintain that status quo by delaying change as long as possible. By some counts, this is the 10th policy statement the company has made paying lip service to improving its openness, yet its most advanced promise is that the company will specify the patents with which it has been vaguely threatening Linux. That's good, in the same way that a kidnapper finally making ransom demands is good.

The bad vastly overwhelms it. Microsoft promises to let people know when it breaks standards, and will help people use those broken standards. Microsoft won't sue unlicensed developers, as long as nobody uses what they do and they steer clear of the GPL. Microsoft will kindly deign to let people plug their file formats into its applications, when it gets around to publishing the details: now shut up and swallow OOXML.

Admittedly, the company is finally fully documenting its server APIs and protocols — only 15 years after the launch of Windows NT — but that was wrenched out of the company by the European Union, the only organisation on the planet capable of penetrating the Ballmerian carapace. To the EU's further credit, it shows no sign of wanting to remove its ovipositor until there's actual proof of more comprehensive reform.

That may take some time. That delay, while only a delay, is restraining the IT industry's diversity, creativity and ability to innovate where it matters. Almost nothing about yesterday's statement changes that. That chorus of cat-calls is letting the company off lightly — and it knows it.

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