Microsoft to Open Source: You Win

Bowing to what Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called the changing landscape of the IT industry and others call pressure from EU anti-trust actions, Microsoft announced today the release of some of its technical crown jewels: the heretofore secret APIs Microsoft products used to talk with each other.

This new level of openness and willingness to interoperate with other software stressed Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect, is more than either cosmetics or bowing to EU legal pressure. “This is a very important shift in how each and every engineer at the company views what their mission is and what their job is,” said Ozzie. “This is an important announcement for the engineers at Microsoft, for our partners, our competitors and our customers.”

Microsoft will be releasing today at over 30,000 pages of API and communication protocol developer information on its major products: Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Exchange Server 2007; with more info coming by June on Windows Vista (including the .NET Framework), Office 2007 and Office SharePoint 2007. Also, the company says it will be launching an “Open Source Interoperability Initiative. 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.”

Further, according to the statement: “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.”

During the conference call, Ballmer could not resist adding that commercial use patent licenses would be “readily available for the right fee”, but the promise not to sue non-commercial open source developers who tap Microsoft’s API is a marked departure from previous lawsuits and threats.

“Ignore the puffy press release, which makes it seem less substantial than it really is,” said respected industry observer, Joel Spolsky. “The bottom line is that they released a TON of useful documentation today will be very helpful for people trying to interoperate with Microsoft’s products… this should only help Microsoft in the long run. It’s a surprise that they didn’t do it sooner.”

European Union regulators fined €497 million Microsoft in 2004 citing its unwillingness at that time to adequately license and document the communication protocols used by its server products, voice skepticism today, noting they have seen four similar pronouncements from the company.

When Ballmer was asked by a reporter on the conference call since (in Ballmer’s words) this new move toward openness was critical, why wasn’t taken sooner, he replied, “Well, these steps are being taken on our own. There were certainly things we did to get into compliance with the European (Union) Commission’s decision and the consent decree here in the United States. But these principles are being taken on our own accord, and do reflect the reality of our unique legal situation, but also quite frankly what we see as the new opportunities and risks in the more connected world.

“The world we grew up in was primarily a world of individual machines with people writing programs, with the greatest value add coming frankly on the machines that ran our products. In the more connected world… what will be one of the greatest value adds will be in some senses what people do on the other end of the wire. And opening up, particularly for our high volume products The combination of the new environment, the new opportunities it presents for our customers, for developers to add value around our products – there are risks that come with it, but on balance its consistent with what we will be doing anyway from a legal perspective and is pro-customer and frankly net net should be in the long run a good thing for our shareholders.”