Microsoft's Promise for Interoperability Provokes Doubt and Hope

Microsoft's announcement to open protocols and APIs for greater interoperability may forecast a better software ecosystem. But only if the software giant follows through.

Microsoft's Thursday announcement of its strategy to enhance interoperability and openness perked the ears of the software industry. But don't assume this means that the folks in Redmond all bought Birkenstocks, says Nick Selby, director of research operation for IT consultancy 451 Group. "Clearly [a major reason] Microsoft is making this move is to head off the competition from open source and open standards, which were threatening to ruin Microsoft."

Steve Ballmer Microsoft Interoperability
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

The announcement included a promise to open connections to high-volume products (such as Vista and Server 2008), enhance data portability, create better support for industry standards, and strengthen communication with customers and the industry, including the open-source community. Such statements were unusual for a company long known for keeping its intellectual property close to the vest.

"This is the first time there's been any recognition [by Microsoft] that an open approach makes business sense," says 451 Group's Selby. "That's an admission by Microsoft of whats been painfully obvious for years to everyone else."

Selby thinks this "sea change" will have a major effect on the open standards and open source movements. And the competition to create applications that work well within the Microsoft ecosystem will benefit end users as well.

Matt Asay, VP of business development for Alfresco Software, an open source alternative for enterprise content management, also thinks Microsoft's move to open up its APIs and protocols means great things for end-users, IT folks, and third-party vendors. "I don't know any enterprises that exclusively use Microsoft's products. Hence, for roughly 100 percent of the customers out there this should mean more seamless interoperability with third-party software solutions" [including Alfresco's]," he says. Still, "It's not a free ride for third-party software vendors: Microsoft still expects to get paid for its intellectual property, but it appears that Microsoft is going to be much more transparent about how it avails would-be partners of this IP. This should translate into better value for customers."

But both Selby and Asay point out that no matter what the positive effects on end users, IT folks and third-party vendors, the positive effect on Microsoft itself is the software giants first concern. "One thing people can absolutely be sure about is that Microsoft didn't do this out of charity," says Asay. "Microsoft is a business."

Says Selby, "Opening the APIs increases its ability to interact better with a greater range of other software—and Microsoft hopes this will keep it smack in the middle of the enterprise IT ecosystem."

Meanwhile, longtime Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley thinks Microsoft's words are hollow. "Until Microsoft shows a real change in its behaviors around interoperability, I see pledges like these as little more than the same-old rhetoric," she says in her blog.

Asay, for one, doesn't agree. "It's entirely possible that Microsoft will drag its feet on providing full documentation on its APIs and protocols; that it will fail to live up to the full promise of its statements today," he says. "But given the scope and publicity around the announcement, Microsoft has made it harder to hide behind failed promises. Customers aren't going to let Microsoft off the hook."

"The devil is in the details," he says, "but I'm optimistic."

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