Microsoft's Outlook is Open

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One of the most extraordinary journeys of our time is being undertaken not by some intrepid explorer intent on mapping out one of the few remaining parts of the globe not yet fully investigated, nor by some migratory species capable of covering vast distances, but by a little outfit up in Seattle.

For Microsoft is engaged on a journey that is just as epic as these others: the move from a business based on black-box software, to one that is assumes everything is open.

I don't need to re-tell Microsoft's years of scepticism, in which it attacked the idea of opening up and giving away software with a variety of less-than-flattering descriptions.

Early moves like Shared Source – a kind of make-believe open source - may be fading into oblivion, because more recently Microsoft has started embracing openness more seriously, not least by announcing that it would be releasing code under the GNU GPL.

So against that background, the following news is really not so surprising:

In order to facilitate interoperability and enable customers and vendors to access the data in .pst files on a variety of platforms, we will be releasing documentation for the .pst file format. This will allow developers to read, create, and interoperate with the data in .pst files in server and client scenarios using the programming language and platform of their choice.

The technical documentation will detail how the data is stored, along with guidance for accessing that data from other software applications. It also will highlight the structure of the .pst file, provide details like how to navigate the folder hierarchy, and explain how to access the individual data objects and properties.

Unfortunately, this is under Microsoft's Open Specification Promise, which, as the Software Freedom Law Center noted, is pretty useless for free software:

There has been much discussion in the free software community and in the press about the inadequacy of Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) as a standard, including good analysis of some of the shortcomings of Microsoft's Open Specification Promise (OSP), a promise that is supposed to protect projects from patent risk. Nonetheless, following the close of the ISO-BRM meeting in Geneva, SFLC's clients and colleagues have continued to express uncertainty as to whether the OSP would adequately apply to implementations licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL). In response to these requests for clarification, we publicly conclude that the OSP provides no assurance to GPL developers and that it is unsafe to rely upon the OSP for any free software implementation, whether under the GPL or another free software license.

So for practical purposes, Microsoft's announcement is, as is so often the case currently, more a matter making the right noises than doing the right thing.

Nonetheless, I think it's significant, because it is part of larger move towards full openness, however halting that may be. Indeed, as I've said before, I think it's likely that eventually Microsoft will offer most of its products as open source for the simple reason that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages for the company as much as for everyone else.

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