Microsoft Gets Open Source Religion €“ Or Maybe Not

I've been predicting for some years that Microsoft will become an open source company – simply because it's a better way of creating software, and because the old model of selling constant rounds of unwanted, unnecessary upgrades to bloated legacy applications isn't going to work much longer. And today, with much fanfare, Microsoft finally announced...nothing of the kind.

But what it did unveil is interesting and significant:

Microsoft Corp. today announced a set of broad-reaching changes to its technology and business practices to increase the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for developers, partners, customers and competitors.

Look at that: the first key word is “openness”, no less: a faint glimmer of an open source future perhaps? Continuing, Microsoft then proclaimed four “interoperability principles”

Specifically, Microsoft is implementing four new interoperability principles and corresponding actions across its high-volume business products: (1) ensuring open connections; (2) promoting data portability; (3) enhancing support for industry standards; and (4) fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities.

“Open connections” is intriguing, because it is, of course, utterly meaningless. This shows that Microsoft is really, really keen to paint itself as “open”, but can't bring itself to go really open – as in open source. Instead, it comes up with “open connections”, just like it came up with “shared source” when it couldn't even bring itself to utter the word “open” - which at least shows that it's making progress.

That ostinato “open” note is played again in “open engagement” - you wonder how you might have "closed engagement". It's interesting, too, the way “including open source communities” is tacked on at the end, suggesting that what's really meant is “even with those sandal-wearing open source hippie communities.” So the big takeaway here is that Microsoft has realised that “openness” has won, and that the sooner it jumps on that bandwagon, the better.

Digging a little deeper into the announcement, it becomes clear that these “open connections” pretty much amount to the kinds of thing the EU wrung from Microsoft in its recent tussle over workgroup interoperability: detailed API documentation. That's welcome and laudable, but unfortunately there seems to be the same sting in the tail as with the EU agreement:

Microsoft is providing a covenant not to sue open source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of these protocols. These developers will be able to use the documentation for free to develop products. Companies that engage in commercial distribution of these protocol implementations will be able to obtain a patent license from Microsoft, as will enterprises that obtain these implementations from a distributor that does not have such a patent license.

So how will this work in practice? If a hacker's bedroom open source project is used in a commercial distribution, does that mean licensing fees need to be paid? It's not at all clear to me what exactly Microsoft means or wants here. Can open source hackers really look at the protocols and merrily code away, and never get sued? Frankly, I wouldn't want to bet my livelihood on it. I think that it's going to take a very long time – years, maybe – for the reality of this agreement to become clear. And of course, in the meantime, the resulting FUD is a handy by-product.

The other thing to bear in mind with this interoperability mantra is that it is precisely the line Microsoft took in its deal with Novell. Thus the invocation here must ring alarm bells within the free software world given the hugely divisive effect that agreement has had on the entire community.

This issue of the knock-on effects of Microsoft's idea of interoperability also rather vitiates the creation of the Open Source Interoperability Initiative, which is designed

To promote and enable more interoperability between commercial and community-based open source technologies and Microsoft products, this initiative will provide resources, facilities and events, including labs, plug fests, technical content and opportunities for ongoing cooperative development.

Note, by the way, that Microsoft has effected the marvellous sleight of hand that it – not the OSI, not the Linux Foundation, but *Microsoft* – is setting up an Open Source Interoperability Initiative.

In some ways, the most amazing paragraph in the whole announcement is not the protestations of undying love for openness, but the following:

The interoperability principles and actions announced today reflect the changed legal landscape for Microsoft and the IT industry. They are an important step forward for the company in its ongoing efforts to fulfill the responsibilities and obligations outlined in the September 2007 judgment of the European Court of First Instance (CFI).

This is certainly true, as shown by the fact that Microsoft is effectively applying the agreement with the EU to most of its product range:

Through the initiatives we are announcing, we are taking responsibility for implementing the principles in the interoperability portion of the CFI decision across all of Microsoft’s high-volume products.

But what it implies is that in terms of oversight and regulation of the computer sector, the centre of gravity has shifted across the Atlantic. The US government and courts had essentially given up trying to rein in Microsoft's monopolistic activities. The EU persevered, and was widely derided for doing so, not least in the US. The EU not only managed to get Microsoft to blink first, but established itself as the framer and arbiter of what the latter rightly calls “the changed legal landscape for Microsoft and the IT industry.” That's a revolution that will have enormous repercussions.

Given Microsoft's repeated claims that Linux is infringing on its patents, and the shameless – and continuing - subversion of the entire ISO process in its attempts to have OOXML blessed as an official ISO standard, it is hard not be cynical in the face of this kind of announcement (well, hard for a cynical journalist, at least). I'd like to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, because I truly believe that one day it will make all these kinds of moves towards opening up and mean it. But for the moment – make that two - I want to see how all these fine words actually translate into buttering parsnips before I start singing “hosanna”.

Now read:

Microsoft's new age of openness: roundup


Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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