Microsoft's new era: First reactions

Microsoft's move to open its software has received a cautious, grudging response, but then the company has made bold announcements before and little has changed. This time though, with Bill Gates' departure, things could be fundamentally different.

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Microsoft’s commitment to open up its APIs and communications protocols and reach out to open source developers polarised opinions much like Microsoft itself has historically polarised the industry.

The European Union expressed outright scepticism over Microsoft’s four-pronged plan for data portability, support for industry standards, interoperability and openness by publishing APIs and protocols for its client and server operating systems and major enterprise platforms.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer himself said the plan was in part designed to meet obligations laid out in the September 2007 judgment of the EU’s European Court of First Instance (CFI).

Others characterized the announcement as more of the same rhetoric from Microsoft, while some saw it as a bold move to sway next week’s International Standards Organization (ISO) meeting concerning standardization for Microsoft’s Office OpenXML (OOXML) format. Microsoft faces an uphill battle for ISO certification after losing in a first-round vote last year.

But others, including some open source developers and Linux experts, saw promise in Microsoft’s actions even while professing to wait for more details to confirm their optimism.

Still others say while Microsoft is pointing in the right direction, the company's actions aren’t completely altruistic, and that it still seeks dominance albeit now with an altered fighting stance.

Whatever the reaction, it is clear that Microsoft’s move to loosen its grip on proprietary protocols and APIs represents acknowledgement that Google, open source and other forces are exerting tremendous pressure on traditional software vendors in a world of distributed computing and open Web-based applications.

"The world of software development has been marching in a steady direction toward being open and transparent,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. “This announcement by Microsoft seems to indicate they want to participate in that march. Even if some of the announced details still seem less than ideal for open source developers, at least it’s a first step. We look forward to seeing more details on their plans and hope the execution of these plans will bear out these claims.”

Microsoft’s first step included publication on its Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site of 30,000 pages documenting all the APIs and communications protocols that Microsoft products use to connect to Windows Server 2008 and Windows Vista (including the .Net Framework).

Microsoft will now offer those free to anyone with access to the Web. Previously, they were available only under a trade secret license. The company said developers looking for patent-infringement protection for implementations of Microsoft’s APIs and protocols would be offered licenses at low royalty rates and under reasonable terms.

In the coming months, Microsoft will begin documenting API and communications protocols for SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007. Microsoft plans to finish the project in June and said it will continue to reveal APIs and protocols in subsequent versions of those products.

Microsoft also said it will design new APIs for Word, Excel and PowerPoint to allow developers to plug in additional document formats and enable users to set those formats as their defaults.

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