Microsoft gives ground on multiple fronts

Concessions on APIs, virtualization may be sign of evolution

Microsoft’s used many slogans in its 30 years of existence. Remember “Where do you want to go today?”

But let’s face it, other, more potent mottoes have guided the actions of the company and its executives throughout the years. Take “embrace and extend,” a phrase that’s been used to describe the company’s tendency to coopt open standards such as Java in order to better promote its software.

But in two key areas last week, Microsoft conceded to the demands of competitors, regulators, and third-party ISVs, agreeing to make proprietary code and APIs available that would give competitors a more equal footing with Redmond’s products.

In the most visible dispute Microsoft last week released APIs that allow third-party security vendors to disable the Vista Security Center, a management console for security products. In recent weeks, executives from Microsoft, McAfee, and Symantec have traded barbs in the press over access to the Security Center, which Symantec and McAfee said disadvantaged their products. The European Commission also expressed concern over whether Security Center and other Vista security features might stifle innovation.

Just as important, Microsoft promised to create APIs that allow third-party vendors such as Symantec to get around a kernel-level security feature in 64-bit versions of Vista known as PatchGuard. Symantec, in particular, has argued that PatchGuard, which prevents modifications to the operating system kernel, limits the ability to protect its customers against some kinds of malicious code. Microsoft was talking with security companies last week to discuss ways that it could help the work around PatchGuard’s protections. 

But it wasn’t just security where Microsoft gave ground. The company also made concessions on virtualization technology, agreeing last week to make its specification for its VHD (Virtual Hard Drive) virtualization software freely available to all software developers. Microsoft has already licensed VHD to around 60 companies and hopes that throwing the doors open on the software will spur sales of around 500,000 of its virtualized servers this year.

Microsoft’s concessions are an indication that the company is maturing and developing a more holistic idea of what is in its best interests, said Paul DeGroot,  an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

“In the past they’ve been driven by individual product groups deciding ‘what’s best for our product’ even if it hurt the company,” DeGroot said.

This time, Microsoft may have decided that breaking down barriers to adoption of Microsoft products is in the long-run interest of the company, even if it means leaving money on the table in the short run, DeGroot said.