Open APIs may help Microsoft repair reputation

Microsoft's move to open up its APIs could give the company an image boost as well as help it compete more effectively against Google

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.

Mike Gilpin, an analyst with Forrester, suggested that many of Microsoft's recent executive changes also represent a shift in mindset to a more open policy, and noted the rise of executives such as Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy and a former IBM Linux specialist, as part of this attitude adjustment.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a relationship between the two things," he said. "This does come from the top. I think in the way this is being communicated inside of Microsoft, it places a lot of requirements on developers and product managers to behave in a certain way -- and if they don't do that, they'll be in a lot of trouble with [Chairman] Bill [Gates] and [CEO] Steve [Ballmer]."

Gilpin acknowledged that he has always been skeptical of Microsoft's intentions toward being more open and transparent, but in the past two years, he said the company "has really changed its stripes around interoperability."

In a blog post on Thursday, Hilf himself noted that Microsoft's new commitment has evolved over time, though he called the changes to Microsoft's strategy "broad-reaching" and said they "go above and beyond any prior incremental changes in Microsoft's DNA."

These changes are not only happening because of market forces that have given rise to the success of open source, but also because Microsoft has suffered from its own proprietary legacy. Aside from its embroilment in lengthy and costly antitrust cases both in the United States and overseas, a lack of support for open standards and interfaces also have hurt the adoption of its technology. By being more open, the company could also be more successful in areas where it has struggled, like the Internet, analysts said.

For example, when Microsoft created a new version of its Internet Explorer browser, IE 7, to keep up with the latest Internet standards -- and to compete with Mozilla's Firefox browser -- many people who'd built sites to work with previous versions of IE found they no longer worked because they had been designed to support Microsoft's proprietary technologies. In trying to do the right thing and support more open and generally supported technologies, Microsoft found that its own proprietary software got in the way of its best intentions.

In fact, the changing business models on the Internet that have made Google so successful are another example of where Microsoft could have benefited if it had embraced open standards and more technological transparency sooner, Selby said. Google right away gave developers access to APIs to create a community around its Web-based products and services -- and used this fact to criticize Microsoft, he said.

Microsoft's decision to be more open takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of that argument, he added. "It's a simple way to do the right thing and also manage a poke in Google's eye," Selby said.

Providing more open access to technologies also could give Microsoft leverage if it is indeed successful in its bid to purchase Yahoo, which recently said it would open up more APIs to developers in its own pursuit of Google.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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