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Promises, Promises from Microsoft. Again.
Thursday, February 21 2008 @ 07:21 PM EST

Nobody is buying it. Well. Employees, maybe. Microsoft is once again promising interoperability and adherence to standards, but its own version of each. Interoperability that is safe only for noncommercial software excludes Microsoft's number one competitor, Linux. It is noncommercial and commercial, depending on who is using it. So, right there it tells you that this is a promise to do nothing that matters. Microsoft is currently being investigated by the EU Commission regarding the same two issues, interoperability and its behavior pushing MSOOXML as a "standard". This is a promise to remain incompatible with the GPL, as far as I can make out.

Here's the response from the EU Commission. They totally get that this promise is insufficient. They've heard it before, at least four times. And it doesn't wipe the slate clean regarding past violations, even if they meant it. ECIS's Thomas Vinje also issued a statement [PDF] pointing out that the proof is in the pudding, that Microsoft doesn't get to define interoperability unilaterally, and as for standards, if it meant it, it would support ODF. What the world needs, he says, is "a permanent change in Microsoft's behavior, not just another announcement." ECIS' members include Adobe, Corel, IBM, Nokia, Opera, Oracle, RealNetworks, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems. Here's Red Hat's statement. Here's Andy Updegrove's take. Todd Bishop's coverage on Seattle PI. And here's the video and transcript of Microsoft's conference call, with Steve Ballmer, Brad Smith, Bob Muglia, and Ray Ozzie. Look at Ozzie's expression in the photo on this page.

Here's the complete ECIS statement:

The proof of this pudding will be in the eating. The world needs a permanent change in Microsoft's behaviour, not just another announcement. We have heard high-profile commitments from Microsoft a half-dozen times over the past two years, but have yet to see any lasting change in Microsoft's behaviour in the marketplace.

In August 2007 - one month before the European Court of First Instance threw out Microsoft's appeal of the European Commission's condemnation on every significant point - Microsoft announced "Windows Principles: Empowering choice, opportunity and interoperability." At that same moment, Microsoft had yet to comply with the Commission's original decision of March 2004 requiring disclosure of interoperability information. Nor did those "Windows Principles" address in any meaningful way the fundamental abuses of which Microsoft had been found guilty.

Be that at is may, the September 2007 Court judgment now compels Microsoft to end monopoly abuses which restrict full and fair competition. This is not a matter of choice. Nor should Microsoft itself be the ultimate judge of what constitutes acceptable practice, particularly in view of newly announced investigations by the European Commission into Microsoft's practices, as well as last month's extension of US government scrutiny of Microsoft's inadequate efforts to comply with the US anti-trust decision.

In light of this history, it is far too early to say whether, in Microsoft's own words, "the actions announced today reflect a strategic change in [Microsoft's] approach to interoperability". And even if that proves to be the case, it is far too early to say whether this new, unilateral "approach to interoperability" will bring Microsoft into compliance with anti-trust law in Europe and elsewhere. At this point, we can only observe that today's announcement raises far more questions than it answers. For example:

  • Microsoft promises not to sue open source developers for "non-commercial distribution". That's presumably great news for hobbyists, but completely excludes some of Microsoft's most threatening potential competitors. We don't think that is what the European Commission and the European Court have in mind.

  • Regarding the commitment to "enhancing support for industry standards": Whose standards? For years now, Microsoft has either failed to implement or has actively corrupted a range of truly open standards adopted and implemented by the rest of the industry. Unless and until that behaviour stops, today's words mean nothing.

More fundamentally, today's announcement is still all about the rest of the world interoperating with Microsoft on Microsoft's own terms, not the other way around. So long as that is the strategic orientation, the interoperability devil will always be in the technical and commercial details.

As either luck or Microsoft's timing would have it, an important test of what Microsoft really means by "enhancing support for industry standards" will come next week at a meeting of the International Standards Organisation (ISO). If Microsoft is committed to truly open standards, it would embrace the existing ISO cross-platform standard for document processing, the Open Document Format (ODF), rather than push forward its proprietary Windows-dependent standard for document processing, OOXML. ODF already has wide industry acceptance, permits unconditional open competition and thus promotes competition-driven innovation.

But despite all the standards support rhetoric from Redmond, Microsoft has yet to implement ODF natively in its own systems. The best proof of Microsoft's intention to live by the principles it has announced today would be for it to agree now to harmonize its efforts with the ODF standard, rather than trying to position OOXML as a "better" competing standard.

It's actually more than a half dozen. Here for your amusement are an additional ten previous Microsoft statements promising interoperability:

And yet they are still not interoperable. Even the OSP, Microsoft's patent promise regarding MSOOXML, excludes GPL programmers, so far as I can understand their promise. And they've been selling interoperability to folks like Novell for money on terms that clash with GPLv3. So I'd say we still have a way to go. What the world needs is true interoperability, including with GPL code, so the artificial barriers to smooth interoperability come down and we have a fair playing field for everyone.

Here's the full EU statement:

Antitrust: Commission takes note of Microsoft's announcement on interoperability principles

The European Commission takes note of today's announcement by Microsoft of its intention to commit to a number of principles in order to promote interoperability with some of its high market share software products. This announcement does not relate to the question of whether or not Microsoft has been complying with EU antitrust rules in this area in the past. The Commission would welcome any move towards genuine interoperability. Nonetheless, the Commission notes that today's announcement follows at least four similar statements by Microsoft in the past on the importance of interoperability. In January 2008, the Commission initiated two formal antitrust investigations against Microsoft – one relating to interoperability, one relating to tying of separate software products (see MEMO/08/19).  In the course of its ongoing interoperability investigation, the Commission will therefore verify whether Microsoft is complying with EU antitrust rules, whether the principles announced today would end any infringement were they implemented in practice, and whether or not the principles announced today are in fact implemented in practice. Today's announcement by Microsoft does not address the tying allegations.

In its Microsoft judgment of 17 September 2007 the Court of First Instance established clear principles for dominant companies with regard to interoperability disclosures and the tying of separate software products (see MEMO/07/359). In January 2008 the Commission initiated two formal antitrust investigations in order to verify whether Microsoft is complying with the principles established by the Court.

One of these investigations focuses on the alleged illegal refusal by Microsoft to disclose sufficient interoperability information across a broad range of products, including information related to its Office suite, a number of its server products, and also in relation to the so called .NET Framework and on the question whether Microsoft's new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors' products.

The second investigation concerns allegations of tying of separate software products, including Internet Explorer, to the Windows PC operating system.

The initiation of proceedings in these investigations does not imply that the Commission has proof of infringements. It only signifies that the Commission will further investigate the cases as a matter of priority.  

And the Microsoft press release:

Microsoft Makes Strategic Changes in Technology and Business Practices to Expand Interoperability

New interoperability principles and actions will increase openness of key products.

REDMOND, Wash. — Feb. 21, 2008 — 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.

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.

“These steps represent an important step and significant change in how we share information about our products and technologies,” said Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer. “For the past 33 years, we have shared a lot of information with hundreds of thousands of partners around the world and helped build the industry, but today’s announcement represents a significant expansion toward even greater transparency. Our goal is to promote greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for customers and developers throughout the industry by making our products more open and by sharing even more information about our technologies.”

According to Ray Ozzie, Microsoft chief software architect, the company’s announcement reflects the significance that individuals and businesses place upon the ease of information-sharing. As heterogeneity is the norm within enterprise architectures, interoperability across applications and services has become a key requirement.

“Customers need all their vendors, including and especially Microsoft, to deliver software and services that are flexible enough such that any developer can use their open interfaces and data to effectively integrate applications or to compose entirely new solutions,” said Ozzie. “By increasing the openness of our products, we will provide developers additional opportunity to innovate and deliver value for customers.”

“The principles and actions announced today by Microsoft are a very significant expansion of its efforts to promote interoperability,” said Manfred Wangler, vice president, Corporate Research and Technology, Software and Engineering, Siemens. “While Microsoft has made considerable progress on interoperability over the past several years, including working with us on the Interoperability Executive Customer Council, today’s news take Microsoft’s interoperability commitment to a whole new level.”

“The interoperability principles and actions announced today by Microsoft will benefit the broader IT community,” said Thomas Vogel, head, Information Management, Novartis Pharma. “Ensuring open connections to Microsoft’s high-volume products presents significant opportunities for the vast majority of software developers, which will help foster greater interoperability, opportunity and choice in the marketplace. We look forward to a constructive, structured, and multilateral dialogue to ensure stakeholder-driven evolution of these principles and actions.”

The interoperability principles and actions announced today apply to the following high-volume Microsoft products: Windows Vista (including the .NET Framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007, and future versions of all these products. Highlights of the specific actions Microsoft is taking to implement its new interoperability principles are described below.

  • Ensuring open connections to Microsoft’s high-volume products. To enhance connections with third-party products, Microsoft will publish on its Web site documentation for all application programming interfaces (APIs) and communications protocols in its high-volume products that are used by other Microsoft products. Developers do not need to take a license or pay a royalty or other fee to access this information. Open access to this documentation will ensure that third-party developers can connect to Microsoft’s high-volume products just as Microsoft’s other products do.

  • As an immediate next step, starting today Microsoft will openly publish on MSDN over 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade secret license through the Microsoft Work Group Server Protocol Program (WSPP) and the Microsoft Communication Protocol Program (MCPP). Protocol documentation for additional products, such as Office 2007 and all of the other high-volume products covered by these principles, will be published in the upcoming months.

  • Microsoft will indicate on its Web site which protocols are covered by Microsoft patents and will license all of these patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, at low royalty rates. To assist those interested in considering a patent license, Microsoft will make available a list of specific Microsoft patents and patent applications that cover each protocol.

  • 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.

  • Documenting how Microsoft supports industry standards and extensions. To increase transparency and promote interoperability, when Microsoft supports a standard in a high-volume product, it will work with other major implementers of the standard toward achieving robust, consistent and interoperable implementations across a broad range of widely deployed products.

  • Microsoft will document for the development community how it supports such standards, including those Microsoft extensions that affect interoperability with other implementations of these standards. This documentation will be published on Microsoft’s Web site and it will be accessible without a license, royalty or other fee. These actions will allow third-party developers implementing standards to understand how a standard is used in a Microsoft product and foster improved interoperability for customers. Microsoft will make available a list of any of its patents that cover any of these extensions, and will make available patent licenses on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms.

  • Enhancing Office 2007 to provide greater flexibility of document formats. To promote user choice among document formats, Microsoft will design new APIs for the Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office 2007 to enable developers to plug in additional document formats and to enable users to set these formats as their default for saving documents.

  • Launching the 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.

  • Expanding industry outreach and dialogue. An ongoing dialogue with customers, developers and open source communities will be created through an online Interoperability Forum. In addition, a Document Interoperability Initiative will be launched to address data exchange between widely deployed formats.

The Interoperability Executive Customer (IEC) Council, an advisory organization established in 2006 and consisting mainly of chief information and technology officers from more than 40 companies and government bodies around the world, will help guide Microsoft in its work under these principles and actions. The full text of Microsoft’s new Interoperability Principles, and a full list of the actions Microsoft is taking, can be found on Microsoft’s Interoperability site.

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).

“As we said immediately after the CFI decision last September, Microsoft is committed to taking all necessary steps to ensure we are in full compliance with European law,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel. “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. We will take additional steps in the coming weeks to address the remaining portion of the CFI decision, and we are committed to providing full information to the European Commission so it can evaluate all of these steps.”

As you can see, you still have to pay to be interoperable, and if you are Linux or any commercial FOSS project, they can sue you to the moon over patents if you don't pay them -- terms that are incompatible with the GPL. This is for patents that may or may not be valid, that have not been court-tested and approved. Nice work if you can get it. And that doesn't even reach the issue of whether any of the patents are actually needed. Let me remind you that when Microsoft presented its list of patents to Samba, they didn't need a single one on that long list. Yet Microsoft wants to be paid for patents like this?

In short, they still want to be in the driver's seat. I believe one calls that benefitting from a monopoly, unless I am very much mistaken. And they refuse to be compatible with the GPL on its terms. I just hope the EU doesn't fall for the patent hustle this time.

Stephen Shankland very accurately describes this latest promise as "just the latest refinement of the company's ambivalence" toward FOSS:

At the same time that Microsoft's new arrangement opens up previously secret specifications and protocols for use in open-source software, it also insists that companies planning on distributing or using that software need a patent license.

He goes on to trace, back to 1998, Microsoft's long history of open-source acrimony, as he puts it. The thing is, this is a promise to interoperate with old-fashioned competitors. It doesn't enable interoperability with the GPL, which is not compatible with patent licenses, and that is Microsoft's true competition. Forgive me if I conclude that this is a deliberate exclusion. People aren't as dumb as Microsoft needs them to be.

So what does Microsoft need to do if it really wants to be interoperable and respect standards? Red Hat's statement by Michael Cunningham, VP and General Counsel, explains it nicely:

Eight years ago the U.S. regulatory authorities, and four years ago the European regulators made clear to Microsoft that its refusal to disclose interface information for its monopoly software products violates the law. So, it is hardly surprising to see even Microsoft state today that “interoperability across systems is an important requirement” and announce a “change in [its] approach to interoperability.” Of course, we’ve heard similar announcements before, almost always strategically timed for other effect. Red Hat regards this most recent announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism. Three commitments by Microsoft would show that it really means what it is announcing today:

  •  Commit to open standards: Rather than pushing forward its proprietary, Windows-based formats for document processing, OOXML, Microsoft should embrace the existing ISO-approved, cross-platform industry standard for document processing, Open Document Format (ODF) at the International Standards Organization’s meeting next week in Geneva. Microsoft, please demonstrate implementation of an existing international open standard now rather than make press announcements about intentions of future standards support.

  •  Commit to interoperability with open source: Instead of offering a patent license for its protocol information on the basis of licensing arrangements it knows are incompatible with the GPL – the world’s most widely used open source software license – Microsoft should extend its Open Specification Promise to all of the interoperability information that it is announcing today will be made available. The Open Specification Promise already covers many Microsoft products that do not have monopoly market positions. If Microsoft were truly committed to fostering openness and preventing customer lock-in, it would extend this promise to the protocol and interface information it intends to disclose today. There is no explanation for refusing to extend the Open Specification Promise to “high-volume” products, other than a continued intention on Microsoft’s part to lock customers into its monopoly products, and lock out competitors through patent threats.

  •  Commit to competition on a level playing field: Microsoft’s announcement today appears carefully crafted to foreclose competition from the open source community. How else can you explain a “promise not to sue open source developers” as long as they develop and distribute only*/ “non-commercial” implementations of 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.

Update: This is funny. From the transcript of the teleconference, Brad Smith is explaining the patent situation, whereby the patents that Samba disdained, are now free in popular products for OS developers and for a fee to the commercial players, when Steve Ballmer interrupts to correct him:

BRAD SMITH:...First is the scope of the patent rights that are affected. What this addresses is the patent rights relating to our implementations of our specifications of our communications protocols. So, in effect, this is technology, and a set of IP rights, that people have said is very important for interoperability, and we are addressing this in a broad and new way.

Second, and I think that this is also worth putting into perspective, just as we did last October when we hammered out the final details of our compliance with the European Commission's 2004 decision, there's a clear distinction here between people who are developing open source software and engaging in non-commercial distribution on the one hand, and people who are engaging in commercial distribution and use on the other hand. With respect to the former, meaning developers and those engaged in noncommercial distribution, this new covenant not to sue, with respect to patent rights, is applicable.

On the other hand, with respect to companies that are engaged in commercial distribution, or use internally, there is a need to obtain a patent license where there are applicable patent rights, and we're committing to make these patent licenses readily available. Novell already has an agreement with us that covers all of these patent rights. Some other companies, such as Xandros and others, also have a patent license. So they've already addressed all of that, and their users are already addressed. With respect to other distributors, and users, the clear message is that patent licenses will be freely available.

STEVE BALLMER: Patents will be, not freely, will be available.

BRAD SMITH: Readily available.

STEVE BALLMER: Readily available for the right fee. The basic economic analysis that you should go through sort of goes like this. We have valuable intellectual property in our patents, we will continue to view that as valuable intellectual property in all forms, and we will monetize from all users of that, not all developers, but for all users of that patented technology, all commercial developers, and all commercial users of that patented technology.

We also have trade secret information, which we will continue to protect, with the exception of some important trade secret information in the interoperability realm, which we will still value, but we will make available free of charge, so that people can do appropriate interoperability. So from an economic perspective you could say, in some senses, we're opening up. Yet, at the same time, we retain valuable intellectual property assets.

There you are, Microsoft, 2008. For the right fee you can interoperate. Otherwise you can't. Nothing new about that. And as best as I can figure, they are selling patent licenses to patents Samba says it didn't need. They could work around them. And by the way, Novell is cited as a fine example of Microsoft's efforts to be interoperable. But Novell has yet to ship any GPLv3 code. Because it can't, without consequences. So how is that interoperability?

The audio file url is incorrect. It's Yes. They haven't bothered to post it in a format that everyone can use, only Microsoft users. It says it all.

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