Microsoft Should Tout Interoperability Successes

Two weeks ago, I discussed Microsoft's recent intellectual property moves with regards to the open-source community. (See "Microsoft's Linux IP Moves: What Does It All Mean?" at ) What's amazing is that, since then, the company has announced more major cross-licensing agreements, this time with companies such as LG Electronics and Linspire. And last week, the company promoted a study that shows that Microsoft products are less expensive to support than open-source alternatives. Sounds like things are heating up, right?

Hold on a second. It turns out that Microsoft's interactions with the open-source community and other competitors aren't always as divisive as these recent episodes indicate. Indeed, the company has made great strides in the past year to embrace interoperability and work with partners, customers, and competitors. It's a shame Microsoft doesn't promote this work more often.

I met with members of Microsoft's interoperability team to discuss these initiatives and came away surprised by how much has happened recently. At a high level, Microsoft has abandoned some of its one-time assets--such as proprietary document formats and an ill-fated "Hailstorm" project that would have resulted in its customers' data being stored on Microsoft's servers--for a more pragmatic approach to standards and interoperability. The end result is a bigger market for Microsoft, because its customers are increasingly using heterogeneous environments anyway. I think of it as a win-win.

So what are some of these wins? Many of you are probably aware of Microsoft's efforts to standardize the OpenXML data formats, which it first used in the Office 2007 suite of productivity applications. OpenXML was ratified as a standard by ECMA in December 2006, and Microsoft is now half-way through the process of getting ISO to standardize the format as well. What's interesting about this is that companies as diverse as Apple and British-Petroleum co-submitted Open XML to ECMA.

But here's something you might not be aware of: When the competing Open Document Format was submitted for standardization, Microsoft supported it. Why would the company do such a thing, you ask? "People should choose the format that works best for them," Tom Robertson, the general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft told me. "If national standards lists are nonexclusive, then you can add formats over time." Otherwise, he told me, you'd run into a strange situation in which ISO might decline to review something like OpenXML because it had previously ratified an XML-based document format. Pragmatic.

There's a lot more. Microsoft has created an interoperability vendor alliance comprised of partners and competitors such as Sun Microsystems, Red Hat, Novell, and about 40 others, which hammer out interoperability problems. There's the company's Open Specification Promise, which is essentially a legal document outlining Microsoft technologies that are safe for implementation by the open-source community: The Virtual Hard Drive (VHD) format, the SenderID antispam technologies, and more than 35 Web services specifications have all shipped under the Open Specification Promise, as has OpenXML. Perhaps surprisingly, the open-source community has actually embraced these moves, and there's now an open-source Open Document Format translator, sponsored by Microsoft, available for Office users.

Microsoft has also worked with Ruby and Java developers to port its InfoCard ID technologies to open-source environments and has worked to help open-source software (OSS) developers interoperate between Active Directory (AD) and LDAP open-source directories. The list literally goes on and on.

The big question, of course, is why Microsoft isn't doing much to promote this work. Every time Microsoft and open source clash, it makes big news, but you rarely see any stories about the company actually reaching out and working with its rivals. I'll be looking more at this interesting phenomenon in the future.

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