Microsoft Corp. today made public more than 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows protocols and APIs -- information previously available only under special licenses -- one of several changes in how it deals with open-source developers and software rivals.
Calling the four steps "interoperability principles," Microsoft promised to make it easier and cheaper for developers to create software that works smoothly with its highest-profile and most-current products, including Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007, as well as all future versions of those programs.
It also said it would promote data portability, enhance its support of industry standards and work more closely with the open-source community.
"These steps represent a significant change in how we share information about our technologies and products," CEO Steve Ballmer in a news conference today. "[They] represent a significant expansion in our transparency."
Ballmer noted that the principles, which would govern Microsoft's moves in the future, would be accompanied by concrete action right away. The posting of the 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server, said Ballmer, was one example. "Developers won't need to pay a license or pay a fee to access that information," he said.
Microsoft will open the communication protocols and APIs used by other products to connect to and work with Vista, Server 2008, Exchange 2007 and other titles it dubbed high volume. Outside developers, said Ray Ozzie, the company's chief software architect, will be "using the same means as Microsoft does in its own products. This creates an open and level playing field."
Brad Smith, Microsoft's chief counsel, spelled out the legal ramifications of opening up its protocols and APIs. He noted that in many ways the changes are similar to the ones Microsoft agreed to last September after a European Union court rejected its appeal of a 2004 antitrust ruling.
Smith also said Microsoft protocols covered by patents will be freely available to open-source developers for "noncommercial" purposes, and the company agreed not to sue anyone who used or distributed protocol implementations in noncommercial instances. Companies would still have to license Microsoft's patents, however, if they use those protocols in commercially distributed software.
Protocol information for other products, including Office 2007, Exchange, SQL Server and SharePoint, will be published no later than June, added Bob Muglia, the head of the company's server and tools division.
Microsoft also said it would document how its products comply with industry standards; craft new APIs for Office 2007's Word, Excel and PowerPoint so others could plug in additional document formats and let users set them as their default; and launch a pair of initiatives to reach out to the open-source communality and developers working on interoperability.
Analysts were somewhat split in their first impressions. "It is a big shift that they're making," said Allan Krans, an analyst at Technology Business Review. "We've seen them bring down some barriers over the last year or so, but this is a big deal."
Not so fast, countered Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. "On the surface it appears pretty good; on the surface it looks like they're making things much more open."
But the devil, as the saying goes, is in the details, he added. "We're all going to want to watch what happens. The real answer [to whether this is significant] will come when the developers behind Samba, for example, tell us that the documentation they need is there and the information in them is working for them."
Earlier today, Micosoft began posting a communication protocol and API document for Vista, Server 2008 and other current programs to its Web site, as Ballmer had promised.