Is Microsoft turning over a new leaf?

This time, the company's talk of increased openness has some substance behind it, with APIs for the latest versions of popular apps for the first time

When Microsoft announced on Thursday that it was changing its business practices to be more open — specifically to release documentation on its APIs and protocols — many people reacted with disbelief. The European Commission, which has battled Microsoft for a decade over anticompetitiveness, said in very blunt terms that it didn’t believe Microsoft was sincere. After all, Microsoft has made the “open” promise before but never delivered.

Yet in this case Microsoft’s commitment may be genuine. For many years, developers have asked Microsoft to open up and enable them make to modifications to applications. By all appearances, that's exactly what the company is doing.

[ Read more about Microsoft's new policy and the reaction to it in InfoWorld's special report. ]

What Microsoft really did

In a show of good faith, Microsoft published about 30,000 pages of documents on the APIs and communications protocols for the latest versions of key products: Windows Vista (including the .Net framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007. A sampling of these pages, according to InfoWorld’s Strategic Developer blogger Martin Heller, shows that Microsoft is providing real details valuable to professional Windows developers. “From what I've seen so far in a random sampling, the docs they posted have the inside information all right, and it's just as ugly and full of version-to-version changes as they've been telling us all along,” he said.

What sort of modifications to Microsoft apps may result? For example, developers could change the default document format for Office, said Peter O’Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group. Although developers can now add additional file formats, they can’t make them the default.

But under the new strategy, he noted, developers have the APIs to be able to add their own import/export standards — even the Open Document Format (ODF) that the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the European Commission have approved. Moreover, the new API approach would let company’s choose their preferred import/export formats as the default for Microsoft Office.

This shift meets a key requirement of several European governments that have mandated the use of a nonproprietary standard. Providing this capability also means Microsoft Office could still be used by those governments, who otherwise would have had to move to competing products such as OpenOffice.

Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal notes that Microsoft has not pledged to support the ODF document format outright. Nor has the company said it will ensure the quality of OOXML-ODF conversion, which he calls disappointing omissions.

Is this a new Microsoft?
The increased commitment to opening up its APIs and supporting more industry standards is a real shift at Microsoft, O’Kelly said — but one that has been happening behind the scenes at Microsoft for the last two years. Eric Newcomer, CTO at Iona Technologies, which develops messaging interoperability tools, has seen this shift occur as well. “I’ve seen more commitment to interoperability at Microsoft in the last 18 months than I have in 10 years of working with Microsoft,” he said.

“This is a dramatic change from 20 years ago, but not so dramatic a shift for the last two years,” O’Kelly said. “I don’t think it’s lip service,” noting that once the APIs are put into the public domain or given over to standards groups, “they can’t be taken back.”

He ascribes Microsoft’s change to three related factors.

One factor is a shift in leadership, with Ray Ozzie being made the company’s chief software architect the most notable example of more than a dozen high-level executive changes in the last few years. “A lot of this is Ray,” O’Kelly said, based on Ozzie’s long-held beliefs in open standards and competing through quality and innovation rather than through setting up barriers. But the support goes all the way to the top: “[CEO Steve] Ballmer has given him a charter.” Forrester Research analyst Mike Gilpin also credits Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy and a former IBM Linux specialist, as a leader of this change in approach.

O’Kelly cites the improvements in SharePoint 2007, the radical change in Windows Vista’s UI, and the creation of a server-based version of Excel as evidence — no matter what one thinks of the specific results — that Microsoft is in fact focused on competing through innovation rather than by circling the wagons.

The second factor is that the industry has changed, and Microsoft has had to change with it. Perhaps the biggest shift is that technologies today are fairly mature and established, so it’s less and less likely that new products or versions of existing products can dislodge others. “Companies now stay with what they have: Windows, mainframes, and Java,” said Iona’s Newcomer.

And customers are less likely to replace software wholesale, instead preferring modular updates, Newcomer said, citing a shift in the Java world away from big server stacks to modules. He suspects a similar shift in customer upgrade behavior in the slow adoption of Windows Vista.

The third factor is that it now is costing Microsoft more to be proprietary than to be open, said O’Kelly. “There’s an opportunity cost to not adhering to the spirit and letter of following the [European top court’s ruling against Microsoft], and that cost is infinite,” he noted, since the Europeans show no inclination to back down. The protracted fight and the Microsoft policies that led to it also make many customers question a continued commitment to Microsoft, or at least take a wait-and-see attitude to further investments.

Calling Microsoft’s announcement “very positive,” Ovum analyst Lachal also noted it was a belated reaction to the cost imposed by Europe’s fight over competition concerns: "Microsoft has had plenty of opportunities to realize that it is in its long-term interests to dive into the interoperability pond rather being forced repeatedly to dip its toes in it.” And he suggested that Microsoft must be carefully monitored to ensure it doesn’t retreat from its commitment.

These market changes mean that Microsoft has to act as part of a greater ecosystem, not try to replace everything else on the market. “It’s no longer the Mike Maples ‘our natural market share is 100 percent’ mentality,” said Burton Group’s O’Kelly, referring to Microsoft’s former executive vice president for worldwide products.

Reading the tea leaves
Microsoft’s announcement caught many people off guard, even though a movement toward opening up has been occurring within the company for the last year or two. The announcement’s timing may have been meant to influence the outcome of this week’s ISO meeting on the OOXML standard for Office documents, which Microsoft has been pushing instead of the ODF standard approved in 2005, theorized Burton Group’s O’Kelly. ISO has already rejected Microsoft’s proposal once, though it did get another standards organization, ECMA, to endorse it.

Others have speculated the announcement was meant to ratchet down Microsoft’s contentious relationship with the European Commission.

Another possible reason for the announcement’s timing was to promote Microsoft’s new server technologies, which are being formally announced this week, and Windows Vista, which has had a slow buy-in by users, postulated Iona’s Newcomer. He doesn’t believe it is an accident that Microsoft has publicized just the APIs for its newer technologies, since improving interoperability with earlier technology would give those earlier products a longer life and delay purchases of the new ones.

Still, O’Kelly and Newcomer said that whatever motivated the specific timing of the announcement, it appears that the commitment behind it is real. Ovum’s Lachal is more circumspect: “It is in everybody’s best interests, including Microsoft’s, to keep scrutinizing and challenging the company’s initiatives in this area.”

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.