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Microsoft Interoperability? Yes, But No Respect At All

As crazy as this may sound, I can boil down Microsoft's entire philosophy into a single word. Not crazy enough for you? That word is interoperability.

OK, stop laughing. Truth be told, unless you've really been paying attention, and unless you're the type of person who figures out the mysteries in Dan Brown-type thrillers by the second page, you probably didn't see that one coming. In fact, you probably think I'm joking.

I'm not joking at all.

I can't point to a specific date when it all changed. But the Microsoft of today is defined almost universally by interoperability. There are high-profile examples, like the work Microsoft is doing to fully document how third party products can interoperate with Windows Server as well as Microsoft's own Windows clients currently do. And there is the little-understood work that Microsoft does behind the scenes working with standards bodies, partners, and even competitors to ensure that the company is supporting the right technologies and allowing others to integrate with Microsoft's products.

What's amazing about Microsoft's interoperability work is how this guiding principle impacts the software giant's own products, often in negative ways. For example, Microsoft can and does license Exchange ActiveSync technologies to a slew of competitors, such as iPhone maker Apple and Blackberry maker RIM, despite the fact that doing so has undercut its own Windows Mobile platform. It has supported web standards in IE and abandoned the proprietary rendering engine of the past. It has not just opened up the SMB networking protocols to SAMBA but invited that group into Redmond to share information about the very latest versions of the technology. And most recently, it created a sweeping alliance with Nokia that will see that firm's smart phones be the first non-Microsoft mobile devices to get the dominant Office software.

These are decisions that I, in many ways, do not agree with. I feel that Microsoft is undercutting innate competitive advantages by opening up its technologies to companies that compete with it in crucial new and emerging markets.

Microsoft does not share this philosophy. In fact, it's take on this issue is very simple: Customers expect things to work, and Microsoft will do what it can to ensure that there are no complaints. And with its customers increasingly using products and services from a number of providers, Microsoft is in no position to resist or even passively allow interoperability. So they're jumping right in.

The iPhone is a great example. Apple's consumer-oriented smart phone has taken the US by storm since its debut two years ago and its selling pretty well in certain international markets as well. Microsoft will continue to compete against the iPhone with Windows Mobile, of course, and it will attempt to mimic the success of the iPhone ecosystem with its own mobile marketplace and other Apple-like online services. But the software giant has also worked to ensure that the iPhone works well with popular Microsoft technologies.

Some of that work is obvious, such as when Microsoft licensed Exchange ActiveSync to Apple, opening up the iPhone (and, starting next month, Apple's latest Mac OS X version) to the world's de facto corporate email standard. But some of the work occurs behind the scenes and is, in many ways, simply a side effect of Microsoft's newfound openness. So when an iPhone user receives an email message with an embedded Word document, Excel spreadsheet, or PowerPoint presentation, and can view it seamlessly on the device, that user is benefitting from Microsoft's Office file format documentation work. Apple took that documentation and implemented their own viewer application on the iPhone. But this is something that Apple couldn't have done had Microsoft not already opened it up.

It's important to stress how seamless this is for the user. Few people who have viewed such data files on their iPhones have probably ever considered the amount of work that went on behind the scenes to make it happen. It's a one-second demo--tap the attachment and watch it open in full fidelity--and it just works. It's one of a thousand things the iPhone can do. And Microsoft will never receive an ounce of credit for making it happen.

In a similar vein, there will always be a small but vocal portion of the open source community that continues to despise Microsoft and suspect them of ongoing anticompetitive behavior. They should hop out of their bubble for a second and check out the real world. From ODF support in Office to SMB documentation for the SAMBA folks to the work it did getting the CardSpace identity stack to work with PHP, Microsoft is out there, working with the Open Source community. They're establishing relationships, not talking conspiracy theories.

Microsoft will also compete with some of these companies, of course, in a sort of co-opetition model. And interoperability doesn't have to mean "free": Microsoft charges for the Exchange license, for example. But it is Microsoft's openness--the very phrase an oxymoron at best just 10 years ago--that will define the software giant in the decade ahead. But so few of its customers realize this. When it comes to interoperability, Microsoft is like Rodney Dangerfield: They get no respect at all.

An edited version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2009 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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