Microsoft is Not So Open and Not So Free

For months now, the European Union has been prodding Microsoft to open up its protocols. Last February, the company said it is adopting four new “interoperability principles” to guide its revised business practices. As Infoweek then reported, Microsoft said it will will

work to ensure its products feature “open connections” that will allow outside developers to more easily write programs that interact with its own. To that end, Microsoft will publish on its Web site more than 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols previously available only through a trade secrets license.

For patented protocols, Microsoft said it would offer licenses on “reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.” Open source developers can access the protocols for free for noncommercial use without fear of lawsuits, Microsoft said.

Secondly, Microsoft pledged to support new data portability methods that will allow information stored in Microsoft products such as Office 2007 to be accessed by other programs.

Finally, the company said it would increase communications with customers, IT managers, and the open source community “to drive a collaborative approach to addressing interoperability challenges.” For instance, Microsoft is launching the Open Source Interoperability Initiative — a forum that will include labs, plug fests, technical content, and “opportunities for ongoing cooperative development.”

Microsoft also said it would more fully embrace industry standards in “high volume” products such as the Windows operating system to enhance interoperability with third-party software.

The announcement back then was greeted with skepticism. For example,

“The world needs a permanent change in Microsoft’s behavior, not just another announcement,” said the European Committee for Interoperable Systems, which counts among its members Sun Microsystems, Adobe, IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, and several other vendors that compete with Microsoft.

So what’s happened?

Microsoft has provided some information about its protocols, including the first finalized version of documentation on protocols for Office 2007, SharePoint 2007 and Exchange Server 2007, as well as 5,000 new pages of information on the binary file formats found in versions of Office before Office 2007, online.

But it’s not free. As Infoweek point out, while non-commercial distribution of the implementations don’t cost implementers a dime, they cost plenty to those hoping to make money: 1% of the revenue gained by implementing the protocol documentation in their products, including $10,000 in non-refundable royalties up front. Since they are based on revenue, these royalty terms would also give Microsoft insight into revenues of competitors and partners to which the company otherwise wouldn’t have access.

In addition, there’s a minimum royalty ranging from 10 cents per user for an online service implementing a Windows Vista or Windows Server protocol patent to $85.54 per copy of a product that doesn’t fall under the categories of client application, server application, online service or device application but implements non-Windows protocol patents. For cheap products, that would likely raise the royalty rates far beyond 1% of revenue.Developers, for the most part, are not happy campers, and are likely to sign up only where they see no alternative.

This is all quite a far cry from Google’s approach, which has been to put over a million lines of code into the public domain, and to publish its APIs with enough documentation and sample code to make it really easy to build robust applications on top of things like Google Maps, to cite but one example.

To the GoogleGazer it appears as though Microsoft is doing what it has to do to get the European regulators off their backs, and is paying lip service to Open Source. but still seems to harbor secret hopes that all this interoperability stuff will go away, and enterprises will just pay their desktop taxes to Microsoft keep their mouths shut, and remain fat and dumb, if not happy. I can tell you, it ain’t gonna happen. Those days are over. It’s just a matter of time before everyone else catches on. Microsoft’s stock is a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (1.98%) , and for the sake of investors everywhere, I hope they have a backup plan if this one misfires.

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