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Microsoft's interoperability, standards moves could benefit partners

Microsoft said it is opening a trove of application programming interfaces (APIs) and specifications to third parties and pledged easy patent licensing terms.

Microsoft's latest promises of technology interoperability and openness could make life easier for partners, if the company follows through.

Microsoft execs made some bold statements and promises about opening up the company's trove of application programming interfaces (APIs) and specifications to third parties and customers, and the company is trying to allay concerns of litigation against developers or users of these technologies.

On Thursday, the company's big guns -- CEO Steve Ballmer, chief software architect Ray Ozzie, server and tools senior vice president and general counsel Brad Smith -- told reporters that the company is loosening restrictions on the use of its APIs and communications protocols.

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As of today, Ballmer said the company is publishing "over 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a 4D trade secret license." In addition, he said, "protocol documents for additional products like Office 2007 will be published in the upcoming months."

Ozzie added that the company is "further opening the connections to our high-volume products so that software developers, business partners and competitors can more robustly interact with those products and extend them or invent new solutions for customers."

Patent licenses will be available to parties who want coverage for their implementations of the protocols, and Microsoft will "make licenses available at low royalty rates and under reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms," Ozzie said.

Practically speaking, Microsoft is publishing detailed specifications of the product protocols and APIs and will include "all such interfaces used by Microsoft's other products … so developers using these published specs to connect their own products to our products will be doing so using the same means that Microsoft's own products use for such interoperability."

The full transcript of the call is available on Microsoft's website.

Microsoft has been slammed by rivals, regulators and even some of its own customers for obfuscating some protocols and specs they felt should be in the public domain.

Some rivals remain unimpressed with Microsoft's interoperability verbiage.

Red Hat, for example, pointed out that Microsoft seems be loosening patent restrictions only when it comes to developers who distribute noncommercial implementations of the interoperable products.

"This is simply disingenuous. The only hope for reintroducing competition to the monopoly markets Microsoft now controls -- Windows, Office, etc. -- is through commercial distributions of competitive open source software products," Red Hat executive vice president and general counsel Michael Cunningham wrote in a blog.

Ballmer said Microsoft acted on its own, but partners said continued strong pressure from European regulators drove the deal. In fact, the European Commission issued a statement that expressed interest in Microsoft's words, but also skepticism.

Microsoft's goal: Technical interoperability or continued domination

For developers, value-added resellers (VARs) and integrators, most of whom work with clients that run Microsoft and non-Microsoft technology, broader availability of such specs and overall better interoperability would be a good thing.

George Brown, CEO of Database Solutions, Cherry Hill, N.J. was very happy with the news.

"I think this is a really good move by Microsoft. IP concerns have been a major barrier for SI's who want to extend the Microsoft platform," Brown said.

Others had their doubts. "I'm of two minds at first blush," said Richard Warren, principal of North Carolina Technologies Inc., a Virginia Beach, Va.-based solution provider.

"The optimistic part of me sees this as a genuine initiative that could provide the advertised transparency, reduce third-party development animosity toward Microsoft, and at the same time meet Microsoft's legal challenges (particularly those posed by European regulators)," he said. "The skeptical part of me sees this as a way of leveraging their legal compliance costs, co-opting third-party development by making their 'high-volume products' even more ubiquitous."

Other observers said Microsoft is fighting to preserve its dominance in a world where the open source model has taken root.

On the one hand, the company reaps billions off what many see as closed products like Office and Windows. On the other hand, Microsoft has been nudged into ever more acceptance of interoperability with non-Microsoft systems by regulators here and abroad, by customers irked at what they see as the vendor's iron-fisted attempts at account control.

Those customers and company rivals say Microsoft has subverted open standards and closed off its own formats and APIs in order to lock them into its software.

They cite what they call Microsoft's "3 E's" mantra of "embrace, extend, exterminate" in describing its previous forays into interoperability.

But probably most critical for the company is that more customers and developers, especially younger people coming into the job market, are starting to prefer less feature-packed and easier-to-use offerings like Google's nascent applications. For this constituency, Microsoft is the old-school incumbent embattled by leaner competitors.

The number of people who use more than 10% or 20% of Word or Excel features is painfully low, and Microsoft has to worry about that. There is no reason to keep paying for "feature bloat," said another long-time VAR partner who requested anonymity.

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