If Microsoft executes effectively on its new interoperability promises, it could repair its tarnished reputation in the technology industry and help the company get out of its own way to compete more effectively with Google.
At first glance, Microsoft's news on Thursday that it would provide access to documentation for its major software products, including Windows Vista, Office 2007, and Exchange Server 2007, appeared to be a way to appease the European Commission in its ongoing antitrust case. It also seemed an acknowledgment that Microsoft can't ignore the open source community's impact on its business and prominence in the industry any longer.
"[The news] validates and places a Microsoft acknowledgment that the open models that have emerged -- which Microsoft has denied almost as vociferously as tobacco companies have fought the idea that smoking causes cancer -- are a perfectly reasonable way to go," said Nick Selby, a senior analyst and research director at The 451 Group.
Still, many remain skeptical that providing easier access to APIs and vowing to allow developers to build open source implementations on those APIs without interfering doesn't mean Microsoft is a friend to open source or that the company will change how it does business. Already open source companies such as Red Hat are adopting a wait-and-see approach to the news -- and rightfully so, as Microsoft has cloaked its own business interests in interoperability announcements before. For example, last year, Microsoft struck a so-called interoperability pact with Linux vendor Novell while at the same time saying the company would go after people who violated more than 200 patents Microsoft says it holds for technologies in Linux.
But Thursday's news could, if played correctly, repair the long-held notion in the industry that Microsoft is a proprietary bully that buries anyone who jumps in its sandbox. By making a companywide commitment to being more transparent about its technology and friendly to open source developers and companies that build interoperable technology, Microsoft proves it realizes it can no longer embrace proprietary principles -- and expect the entire industry to go along with it.
"This is the new Microsoft," said Chris Swenson, an analyst at NPD Group. "It really is changing." However, he acknowledged that because of Microsoft's previous business practices and reputation, it's highly likely that "no one is going to give them credit for it."
Still, people should keep an open mind about Microsoft's extension of a new olive branch to open source, he said. If critics take a few steps back, they'll see that Microsoft's decision did not happen overnight.
Microsoft's new attitude is the result of many years of antitrust tussling, beratement at the hands of the open-standards community and product-interoperability challenges that have inspired the company to change its ways in order to stay relevant, analysts said. Under increased global pressure, the company has been slowly coming around to the idea of open source -- through key initiatives such as the Open Specification Promise -- over the past few years.