Microsoft Changes the Game for Developers

Microsoft opens APIs, protocol documentation in an effort to reach out to the developer community.

Though it's not the first time Microsoft has promised to make its software more compatible with various Web and software-based standards, last month's interoperability pledge will likely be remembered either as a dramatic turning point in Redmond's history or the most empty promise it has ever delivered.

With all its top leadership gathered on a hastily announced conference call on Feb. 21, Microsoft said it would be changing its business practices by placing a strategic emphasis on standardization and interoperability, sharing its APIs, releasing extensive documentation of its protocols and promising not to sue open source developers who use Microsoft's patented protocols for non-commercial implementations.

This promise pertains to all of Microsoft's high-volume products -- including Windows Vista, Windows Server, Office, SQL Server and the .NET Framework, among others -- the company announced as it released 30,000 pages of documentation onto its MSDN site.

In short, the message is that the interoperability pledge will embody everything the company does. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer outlined four new interoperability principles that include ensuring open connections; promoting data portability; enhancing support for industry standards; and fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities.

"These steps are an important step and significant change in how we share information about our high-volume products and technologies," Ballmer said on the call. Ballmer was joined by Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, General Council Brad Smith and Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the Server and Tools Business.

Not on the call was co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates, who is set to leave his full-time role at Microsoft this summer. Under Gates, Microsoft became renowned for tightly controlling its proprietary intellectual property (IP).

Timing and Intent
The timing leaves room for skepticism among critics, who note that Microsoft's announcement came just days before the European Commission (EC) slapped the company with a $1.3 billion fine for its failure to comply with a 2004 antitrust ruling. Redmond also faces the prospect of regulatory scrutiny as it attempts to purchase Yahoo! Inc.

Quote: Jamie Lewis, Founder and CEO, Burton Group

"One has to also think that this can't be totally coincidental with [Microsoft's] attempt to take over Yahoo!," says Jamie Lewis, founder and CEO of the Burton Group. "If they're going to get regulatory pushback on that, they're trying to smooth things out and see if they can push things forward."

During the Feb. 21 call, Ozzie emphasized that the initiative reflects an effort to write and provide better software.

"This is an important strategic shift in terms of how each and every engineer at the company views what their mission is and what their job is," Ozzie said. "Interpretability's become important for end users."

Microsoft previously had established IP agreements with open source players such as Novell Inc., Xandros Inc. and others. Now all developers gain free access to Microsoft's APIs and communication protocols.

"Going forward, developers won't even need a trade secret license, which is something that was needed for our communications protocols in the past," Smith said during the call. "Instead, developers will be able to access this information in the same way that they access any other page of content on the Web."

The company was quick to point out that it won't be giving away its IP for commercial use or individual consumption. "We'll continue to view that [technology] as valuable intellectual property in all forms, and we'll 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," Ballmer said.

Four Principles

Ballmer gave an overview of Microsoft's four new principles and how they'll be implemented:

  • Open Connections: Microsoft will document all of the APIs and communications protocols used by Microsoft products.

"Developers won't need to take a license, or pay a royalty or other fee to access any of that information," Ballmer said. Microsoft released 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows clients and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade secret license. In the coming months, Microsoft will publish additional API documentation including information on Office 2007 and the .NET Framework.

  • Data Portability: Microsoft is designing new APIs for Word, Excel and PowerPoint that will let developers plug in additional document formats and enable users to set those formats as their default for saving documents.
  • Standards: In addition to supporting standards, Microsoft will document extensions it makes to any standards.
  • Industry Engagements: Expanding on the Interoperability Executive Council launched three years ago, Microsoft is launching its Open Source Interoperability Initiative.

.NET Community Reaction
Microsoft's move didn't surprise developers, who welcome the change of direction by the software giant.

"I think we'll see better software," says Dan Galvez, managing partner of Hedgehog Development, a Holbrook, N.Y.-based Microsoft Gold Certified Partner. "We'll see more homogenous environments between Microsoft's stuff, Oracle technologies and other platform providers. The software industry will be able to develop better integration."

Edwin Woo, president of iNetvisors, a New York consultancy that works with financial services firms, agrees. Woo says Microsoft has historically been secretive with and protective of its

IP, but that it began softening its stance by offering so-called "trade secret licenses." The recent announcement goes much further than those licenses, Woo says: "It's a big deal. It opens up and makes it easier for people to write software."

"A lot of corporate developers who want to write their own utilities and interfaces with the operating system will find it beneficial to use these open APIs," Woo continues.

Burton Group's Lewis says the more open stance is a direction Microsoft needed to take: "Certainly Microsoft has changed, and the market has changed."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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