Unchained Software: Microsoft Liberates APIs

Outlining a major push for software interoperability, Microsoft today announced that it would make key elements of some its most widely distributed products freely available to developers.

Open source developers and competitors will now make available a vast repository of documentation to create products compatible with the Windows operating system and other Microsoft products.

“Today Microsoft is describing a set of fairly broad changes to our technology and business practices, designed to further increase the openness of our products, and to drive greater interoperability and choice for developers, for partners and for competitors,” CEO Steve Ballmer said on a call with press and analysts.

Those changes fit into the framework of four guiding principles announced today: guaranteeing open connections to its high-volume applications, promoting data portability, increased support for industry standards and extending the dialog between Microsoft and the technology community, including open source developers.

Today’s announcement covers the Microsoft products Vista (including .Net), Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007.

The European Commission, which initiated two fresh antitrust investigations against Microsoft in January — one focusing directly on interoperability — responded quickly to the announcement and with a fair bit of skepticism.

“It’s clear that we certainly welcome any move they have toward genuine interoperability,” an EU official told InternetNews.com. “We have seen similar statements in the past, so we’ll look at this and see what comes out of it,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing legal investigation.

Brad Smith, Microsoft’s senior vice president and general counsel, responded that today’s announcement is about much more than principles.

“Today’s step is certainly qualitatively and quantitatively different from any statement we’ve made in the past,” Smith said. “It’s committing the company to not just mere words but actions.”

Smith noted that at the same time Microsoft announced its declaration of principles, it also posted some 30,000 pages of API documentation for Windows client and server protocols to connect programs to third-party products on its developer network Web site. The documentation had previously been available only through trade-secret licenses.

In the coming months Microsoft plans to post thousands more pages of documentation covering Office and other products, with the process expected to be completed by June, Smith said.

Some of the protocols will continue to be covered by patents, which Microsoft pledged to license through “reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms.” Microsoft will list the patent status of each protocol on the Web site.

Going forward, Smith said that Microsoft will enter into a covenant not to sue open source developers who use the open APIs for noncommercial applications. Commercial developers will still need to obtain patent licenses to use the code.

Microsoft also pledged ongoing support for key standards based on the advice of its Interoperability Executive Customer Council and the conversation it promised to keep up with the community.

Also, the executives said that Microsoft would document extensions made to any standard included in the products covered by the announcement.

Smith also said that the company would press forward in its effort to standardize the Open Office XML format.

Dovetailing with the talk of interoperability was Microsoft’s renewed commitment to data portability. Microsoft said it would collaborate with international standards organizations to codify open formats that users create to share documents, and bake “import” and “export” functions into several of its products to facilitate the transfer of data.

Then, too, Microsoft said it will work to enable customers to set default file formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

Microsoft said it will give institutional support for the open formats with the Document Interoperability Initiative, through which it will offer labs, events and plug fests around the world to promote interoperability between Microsoft’s commercial products and the work of community-based open source developers.

While cautious not to diminish the significance of today’s announcement, Smith characterized the publication of the protocols and the other announcements as a good-faith down payment on an ongoing evolution toward openness and interoperability at Microsoft.

Microsoft’s protracted legal battle in Europe has compelled the company to make substantive changes to its licensing agreements in response to charges that it has been engaging in anticompetitive practices.

The new investigation launched in January came just three months after the EC had declared that Microsoft was in full compliance with the ruling of the Court of First Instance (CFI), which ordered the company to make its software interoperable with other products. That CFI ruling upheld the EC’s landmark antitrust ruling against Microsoft in 2004.

“We realize that as significant as this is, it’s a first step to live up to the principles,” Smith said. “We will take additional steps to address the remaining points of the CFI commission.”

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com

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