Is Microsoft Serious About Interoperability?

The old saying used to go: No one ever got fired for recommending IBM.

But more recently, I think the working mantra has been: No one ever lost their job for being too cynical about Microsoft.

So I'm surprised, frankly, at how far Microsoft seems to have come in light of its recent moves to open up and interoperate a range of solutions and platforms. From the release of the .NET Framework source code, to the recent decision to make IE 8 more standards-savvy, to the ongoing push to promote its Office Open XML (OOXML) file format as an industry standard, it's getting difficult to ignore the growing body of work by Redmond.

Certainly, there's plenty of room for cynicism. Andy Updegrove, a partner at Gesmer Updegrove LLP and a leading legal expert on matters pertaining to technology and IP law, has been a fierce critic of Microsoft's behavior in the OOXML standards battle at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Updegrove takes the cynic's view about Microsoft's efforts.

"I think what you are seeing here with this openness is the conjunction of the [European Union] investigation and a sort of last-ditch battle to keep people in the Microsoft ecosystem as long as they can," Updegrove said. "Just as they want you to have OOXML instead of ODF (the open source OpenDocument Format), they want you to have the feeling there is enough openness in the ecosystem to keep you in the ecosystem. But not so much that they give up control or end up in real competition."

Ultimately, Updegrove contends that Microsoft is indeed opening access to its IP, but doing so in a way that's designed to limit downstream development in the open source community. Updegrove says programs like the Microsoft Open Specification Promise (OSP), which inoculate developers from patent liability, fail to go far enough to make broad adoption a no-brainer.

"They are being very cagey about whether their open standards promise can be implemented in GPL or not," he said.

Others are more optimistic. Peter O'Kelly, analyst for the Burton Group, says Microsoft has already passed the point of no return with its openness initiatives. He points to the recent Interoperability Initiative announced on Feb. 21, which opens access to previously closed APIs and protocols, as a case in point. But he urges developers not to confuse open standards with open source.

"On a higher level, Microsoft gets that open standards and interoperability are key," O'Kelly said. "I think it's clear that Microsoft gets the importance of open standards."

Still, it's hard to shake old habits and part of me, all evidence to the contrary, remains cynical about Microsoft's efforts. As O'Kelly quipped: "There are some people who, no matter what Microsoft does or says, they won't trust them."

Do you trust Microsoft in its new openness stance? E-mail me at [email protected] and let me know why or why not.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 03/18/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

E-Mail and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I've always been a big fan of the law of unintended consequences. Whether it's Henry Ford's invention threatening to melt the polar ice caps or Ray Kroc's innovative fast-food business helping transform America into the most obese nation on earth, it seems that even great ideas can have terrible consequences.

Ask Ray Tomlinson. He knows. The man who invented e-mail back in 1971 was interviewed this week by the Times Online and said he had no idea how huge his innovation would become and the threat it might unleash.

"At that time, the number of people who used e-mail was very small -- maybe between 500 to 1,000. So if you were getting spam, you'd know who was sending it. You'd be able to say to them: that's not a good thing to do," Tomlinson told the Times Online.

The lesson seems pretty darn simple: If you design something to become a success, you better be ready to manage the wages of that success -- whether it's an unintended side-effect, an environmental impact or simply bad people leveraging that success against others.

What's honestly surprising is that software designers often fail to pay full attention to the law of unintended consequences.

Microsoft's ActiveX is such an obvious case in point that I'm almost reluctant to use it here. But ActiveX should stand as an object lesson of what not to do with a software architecture. Intended to enable rich, desktop-like, Web-served applications within Internet Explorer, ActiveX instead emerged as an unacceptable security risk. The same tight and rich integration that made ActiveX so valuable for applications also made it a perfect vehicle for malware.

As with Ford's mass-produced automobile and Kroc's fast food restaurants, Tomlinson's e-mail and Bill Gates' ActiveX are, to an extent, victims of their own success.

"E-mail is like any tool -- it can be used for good or bad," Tomlinson said.

Have you had a development effort that's run into the law of unintended consequences? What did you do to remedy the issue? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 03/13/2008 at 1:15 PM2 comments

What's Behind Microsoft's Recent Moves?

A tip of the hat to Mary Jo Foley, who's blogging about an issue that's earned our attention. That is, the spate of Microsoft announcements, initiatives and policy changes that all seem to point toward a more open and standards-compliant stance from Redmond. I wrote about this in the March 4 issue of the Redmond Developer Newsletter.

The question all along has been: why? Why is Microsoft now opening access to its technologies and conforming to standards? Is it all about customer demand and being competitive? To an extent, absolutely -- Microsoft customers and developers have welcomed all the recent moves. But it also seems that each new initiative is spurred by a pointed threat.

As Foley points out in her blog, the January decision by Microsoft to allow its customers to virtualize the Vista Home Basic and Vista Home Premium versions of its operating system may not be due to Microsoft becoming comfortable with the security of the environments. Rather, a legal complaint from BIOS maker Phoenix Technologies may have spurred Microsoft to change its stance.

According to the recent Joint Status Report from the Department of Justice in the United States vs. Microsoft Corporation case, Phoenix in December complained that its new virtualization product was likely to suffer from Microsoft's license restrictions. Phoenix also argued that Microsoft's stance would "deter consumers from using virtualization software made by Phoenix and other companies."

Microsoft moved quickly to resolve the complaint. As the document notes: "After discussions with Plaintiff States and the [Technical Committee], Microsoft agreed to remove the EULA restrictions and has done so."

It's hardly surprising that Microsoft, perhaps the most examined company in the world, might have to change course in response to legal or regulatory threats. What's really interesting is that we've seen several such corrections over the past couple of years. Whether it's Microsoft embracing XML file formats to avoid having Office locked out of Massachusetts, or Redmond announcing a four-point interoperability initiative just ahead of a European Union finding, it seems like there's an important dynamic driving some key business decisions in Redmond.

What does it mean for developers? In the short-term, Microsoft has delivered increased transparency, openness and interoperability. By any measure, these are very good things. The only concern is that it may have taken the point of a spear to get them done.

What do you think of Microsoft's recent moves? Do the motivations behind them even matter if developers are gaining the access and interoperability that they need? E-mail me at [email protected] and you could be featured in our upcoming coverage of this issue.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 03/11/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Microsoft MIXing It Up

RDN Senior Editor Kathleen Richards is out in Las Vegas, attending the Microsoft MIX08 conference. The confab, now in its third year, focuses on Web development and design, and has emerged as a launching pad for key Microsoft products like Silverlight, the Microsoft Expression suite and Internet Explorer 8.

As Kathleen reports, MIX08 has produced a flurry of important developer-related releases, including the first public downloads of beta versions of Silverlight 2 and Internet Explorer 8. There's also a preview of Visual Studio tooling for Silverlight 2, an Expression Blend 2 beta and an ASP.NET Model View Controller (MVC) preview.

In his keynote address to the more than 2,500 attendees, Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie offered his view of how the Web is shaping Microsoft's vision and what developers might expect going forward. He described the Web as a hub for devices, social experiences and applications with linking, tagging and ranking becoming as common as file and edit in toolbars.

The IE 8 beta, released at the show, seems to offer an early glimpse of this vision. In addition to welcome interoperability tools and dev-oriented features, IE 8 includes an Activities menu that lets users highlight text on a page and then choose an activity -- for example, an address and Live Maps, or the word "camera" and eBay. The Web Slices feature lets users subscribe to parts of a Web page.

Also of note at the conference are some eye-catching demos of Silverlight 2 applications, including a preview of's Olympics site and Hard Rock's "Memorabilia" project.

Did you attend the MIX08 conference? What are your impressions of Microsoft's latest wares? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 03/06/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Microsoft Launches the WorldWide Telescope

The WorldWide Telescope (WWT) project is an ambitious effort to create a Web-accessible, digital map of the entire sky. Based on a database of high-resolution photos from telescopes across the globe, WWT hopes to become the Google Earth of the night sky.

It's an intriguing idea that could inspire a new generation of people to explore the cosmos. Microsoft hopes to launch WWT, currently in private alpha, some time in the spring.

One interesting side note: The genesis of the project comes from work by former Microsoft Research Fellow Jim Gray, who went missing last year while sailing outside the San Francisco Bay.

Gray was well-regarded for his work in the area of database and transaction systems. With WWT evolving from Gray's work on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the SkyServer project, it would seem that we're still benefiting from Gray's efforts, long after his passing.

Are you excited about the WWT project? E-mail me at [email protected] and let me know your thoughts.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 03/06/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Standard Issue: IE 8 Finally Gets It Right

File this under the "Microsoft Finally Gets It" department: Yesterday, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer 8 (IE 8) would ditch the proposed "Super-Standards Mode," which would have made full compliance with public Web standards in the browser an opt-in option. By default, IE 8 had been poised to support implementations proprietary to the current IE 7 browser. Now, Microsoft says IE 8 will comply with current Web standards out of the box.

This is actually a big deal. And great news, at least in the longer-term, for Web developers vexed by the expanding patchwork of standards-based and proprietary Web site implementations. Near-term, IE 8 is likely going to cause some pain as Web sites previously tuned for the standards-impaired IE 7 fail to behave properly under the new browser. Developers supporting the new browser, expected later this year, may face a break-fix cycle on their existing IE-tuned Web sites.

As RDN Executive Editor Jeffrey Schwartz reports, developers who want IE 8 to recognize IE 7-tuned Web pages will have to specifically request IE 8's "Standards Mode" to do so.

"We've decided that IE 8 will, by default, interpret Web content in the most standards-compliant way it can," Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager for Internet Explorer, wrote in a blog post. "This decision is a change from what we've posted previously."

In the long-term, IE 8's commitment to public standards should finally end what has been one of the most disappointing eras in Microsoft's history. That is, Redmond's attempt to layer its own enriched functionality atop and around public W3C-endorsed standards. The Internet Explorer franchise has tempted developers to craft Web sites that may not perform properly under Firefox, Opera, Safari and other non-Microsoft browsers. Robust standards compliance in IE 8 could finally change that.

What do you think of Microsoft's decision on IE 8? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 03/04/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Microsoft's Open Course

Microsoft's decision to change course on IE 8 comes less than two weeks after Redmond had announced it was opening access to key APIs and communication protocols.

That move, which seems designed in part to clear regulatory hurdles and to woo developers to Microsoft platforms, follows similar changes in other areas. In January, for example, Microsoft released source code libraries for .NET Framework 3.5. And the company continues to work to get its XML-based Office file formats approved as an ISO standard. You can read more about this long-running drama here.

While all these moves are steps in the right direction for developers working with Microsoft tools and technologies, none are designed to change the way Microsoft fundamentally does business. The Steve Ballmer money quote from the RDN article about Microsoft's new API policies says it all:

"We will continue to view that as valuable intellectual property in all forms, and we will monetize from all users of that, not all developers, but for all users of that patented technology, all commercial developers and all commercial users of that patented technology."

You can't fault Redmond for trying to turn a buck. Do you think Microsoft is going about it the right way? Could it do more, and if so, what steps should come next? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 03/04/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

EU Spanks Microsoft on Big Launch Day

Michael Desmond, founding editor of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him this week is John Waters, contributing editor of RDN.

Few will feel the impact of Microsoft's pledge to document the APIs and communication protocols used by Vista, Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, Office SharePoint Server 2007 and the .NET Framework more directly than third-party developers.

But it's safe to say that Microsoft probably had a second target: antitrust regulators in Europe. That arrow, however, seems to have gone wide of the mark. The European Commission (EC), the executive branch of the European Union (EU), yesterday imposed a record $1.35 billion antitrust fine on the Redmond software maker for failing to live up to the terms of an antitrust settlement associated with a 2004 commission ruling.

"Microsoft was the first company in 50 years of EU competition policy that the Commission has had to fine for failure to comply with an antitrust decision," EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement. "I hope that today's decision closes a dark chapter in Microsoft's record of noncompliance with the Commission's March 2004 decision."

Adding insult to injury, news of the European regulators' spanking comes on the day Microsoft launched Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008 and Visual Studio 2008.

Microsoft's new openness may not have won over the EU, but it's still a smart move, said Neil Macehiter, our favorite U.K.-based Microsoft maven. "The publication of the APIs is making sure that the Microsoft products remain relevant," he observed. "Third parties are going to be exploiting those APIs to integrate with, not replace, those products."

Macehiter also noted that the work Microsoft has done with the open source community is an extension of what the company has been doing, either on a case-by-case basis with vendors such as Novell, or with particular protocols/technologies (i.e., the Open Specification Promise). He also pointed out that Microsoft's promise not to sue open source developers who use its technology applies only to non-commercial developers; companies such as Red Hat need to acquire the licenses/patents under the so-called reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) terms.

It's worth mentioning that in the process of trying to conform to the requirements of the antitrust case, Microsoft has reportedly generated 30,000 pages of interoperability documentation for Windows and Windows Server. As of this writing, that stuff is available to anyone who wants it, free. --John Waters

Posted on 02/28/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

The Ozzie Effect?

Michael Desmond, founding editor of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him this week is John Waters, contributing editor of RDN.

All this openness at Microsoft is coming just as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates goes into semi-retirement, so it's probably worth giving props to new Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie for what promises to be a smart move for the company, long-term. Ozzie was reportedly the force behind a 2006 open source project to create a translation bridge between Microsoft OOXML and the ODF standard.

Back then, we saw the translator initiative as an early example of "the Ozzie effect." He lacks his predecessor's love of the spotlight, but Mr. Ozzie's influence on the company in an increasingly open and less Microsoft-centric world bodes well. --John Waters

Posted on 02/28/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

And for the Standards-Obsessed...

Michael Desmond, founding editor of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him this week is John Waters, contributing editor of RDN.

Meanwhile, the folks across the pond have launched a new investigation that focuses on whether Microsoft violated antitrust laws by too-aggressively pushing for adoption of its Open Office XML (OOXML) as a global standard. As the standards geeks in the audience know, OOXML is the Microsoft-developed, XML-aware document format implemented in Microsoft Office 2007. It became an Ecma International Technical Committee standard in 2006.

The investigation will be especially welcome in standards circles, according to attorney and standards specialist Andy Updegrove, publisher of the Web site, largely because of what he described as the "wide range of reports from the field" that Microsoft has engaged in "stacking" of the national committees voting on OOXML, as well as other "over-reaching activities" intended to influence the result.

"While the results of this new investigation will take far too long to become public to have much impact on the upcoming final vote on OOXML," Updegrove wrote in an e-mail, "the fact that the EU is opening an investigation into Microsoft's conduct -- and no one else's -- is telling."

He added, "I particularly applaud this action because the credibility and integrity of the standard-setting system has been called into serious question by the events of the last year. Whichever way the final results come out, that system will benefit from the fact that regulators were willing to get to the bottom of things when the trust of the public in standards was increasingly at risk."

Updegrove is a longtime champion of the OpenDocument Format (ODF), an OOXML rival standard developed earlier by the OASIS standards consortium. For more on this topic, check out Updegrove's blog here. --John Waters

Posted on 02/28/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Game Devs Got Game

Michael Desmond, founding editor of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him this week is John Waters, contributing editor of RDN.

When you're focused on software development in and for the enterprise, it's easy to forget about game developers. That would be a mistake. In this day and age, when enhancing the "end user experience" has emerged as a genuine priority -- even (maybe especially) for biz apps -- enterprise developers could learn a lot from their gamer siblings.

Though he didn't address enterprise coders specifically, author, futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil hit the nail on the head during his keynote at the 2008 Game Developers Conference, held last week at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. "Games are the harbinger of everything," Kurzweil told attendees. He later added, "Games are really the cutting-edge of what's happening...Ultimately, they're going to be competitive with real reality."

It was easy to wonder about the future of reality strolling around the exhibit floor at GDC. It was a bit like walking through the set of The Fifth Element or a Moebius illustration. The event drew an estimated 15,000 artists, coders, writers, musicians, publishers and entrepreneurs. Cyberpunks mingled with suits, and the tragically hip rubbed elbows with the socially challenged.

Beyond the looking-for-the-next-blockbuster mentality of the eccentric-in-the-extreme show floor -- and its slight emphasis on hardware (OK, Nintendo, we get it; swinging around that Wii controller is good for you) -- the show featured hundreds of sessions for software developers. The programming track ranged from gamer-focused sessions like the full-day tutorial "Core Techniques and Algorithms in Shader Programming" to Ganesh Rao's more general one-hour session, "The Future of Programming for Multi-Core with the Intel Compilers."

Scott Ambler's session, "Jazzing Up Agile Software Development," was well-attended by game devs looking for ways to become more agile. Ambler is the father of agile modeling and current agile development practice leader in IBM's Methods Group. "Games are all about the end user experience," Ambler observed, "so they really know how to keep users engaged. That's where enterprise developers could probably take a page from game developer handbook."

One reason gamer innovations may tend to slip off the enterprise developer radar screen is the rumor that consoles are about to make the PC an irrelevant gaming platform. When you're building an in-house HR program or a CRM system that really has to scale, chances are you won't be looking to the Xbox for inspiration.

But don't you believe it, says a new advocacy group that popped up at the GDC. According to the PC Gaming Alliance, games on the desktop platform currently account for about 30 percent of the overall market, and that slice of the pie is actually growing. The group cites data from research firm DFC Intelligence, which characterizes PC gaming as "one of the fastest-growing segments of the interactive entertainment market." The group's founding membership roster includes Intel, AMD, Activision, Dell/Alienware, Acer/Gateway, Epic, Nvidia, Razer USA and even Microsoft.

The members of the PCG Alliance plan to collaborate on standards that will make it easier for consumers to understand what titles will play on which systems. They also plan to offer guidance and recommendations for developers, and to share market information among member companies.

But even if consoles manage to take over the gaming world, Kurzweil suggested that the constant, warp-speed evolution of gaming technology will touch most developers, whatever their market. "If you're programming a game or any type of information-based technology two or three years from now," he said, "the world's going to be completely different." --John Waters

Posted on 02/26/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Generation .NET

Michael Desmond, founding editor of Redmond Developer News and Desmond File blogger, is on vacation. Filling in for him today is Kathleen Richards, senior editor of RDN. You can reach her at [email protected].

Capturing the hearts and minds of today's youth, as Apple Inc. has so aptly discovered, can literally make your brand sing.

Microsoft also wants the youth vote. On Monday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates started his college tour by stumping at Stanford University, of all places -- the alma mater of his nemeses, the Google guys. During his talk, Gates announced a new Microsoft program aimed at giving free professional dev tools to college students. The idea is to spark innovation and prepare students for a future in the IT workforce. Called Microsoft DreamSpark, the program is launching this week in 11 countries: Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S.

Students at accredited colleges and universities can use their Windows Live ID to log in to the DreamSpark site, verify their student status and download free copies of Visual Studio 2008 Professional Edition, Visual Studio 2005 Professional Edition, Expression Studio, XNA 2.0 Game Studio, Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition and SQL Server 2005. Each tool is available with a single license, free of charge for non-commercial use. The program is expected to include high school students later this year.

So what's the catch, you ask? And why aren't Eastern Europe, India or Japan on that list? Microsoft has a plan in place to make DreamSpark a global reality in the next year or so (although India isn't among its targets to date). To make this happen, the company is working with academic institutions, government agencies and educational organizations around the world.

As for the catch... The educational providers serve as verification sources of a student's digital ID and current enrollment status. Microsoft says that it's not requiring schools to provide any personal information about students. Students will, however, be required to download Silverlight "to give you the best possible user experience," according to the MSDN DreamSpark Web site. Right!

If this sounds too good be true, we'll have to wait and see. Free developer tools are already out there for the taking from, Google and elsewhere. What could be wrong with having access to free developer, designer and gamer tools? As one Channel 8 poster proclaimed, "Yahoo!!!" --Kathleen Richards

Posted on 02/21/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

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