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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


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