Microsoft announces principles to encourage interoperability

In the latest attempt to rival software company Google, Microsoft announced four new principles that would drive interoperability and open standards in its software products. The initiatives most directly affect software developers, but federal agencies stand to benefit from easier integration of systems and applications.

During a conference call on Thursday, Microsoft Chief Information Officer Steve Ballmer and other executives described changes across its high-volume business products, including Windows Vista, Windows Server, SQL Server, Office, Exchange Server and Office SharePoint Server, that would foster open connections with third-party protection, data portability, support for industry standards, and more engagement with customers and industry, including the open source communities. The announcement was part of Microsoft's effort to meet industry demand for less proprietary development strategies by playing nice with competing vendors.

"All of these actions and the many more [to come] represent an important change in how we share information," Ballmer said. "Long-term success depends on our ability to deliver a software and services platform that is open, flexible and provides choice."

Microsoft announced a few tangible steps, including the publication for its partner developers of more than 30,000 pages of documentation, including Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade secret license, with promises for more in coming months. These protocols act as links that allow developers to more easily integrate Microsoft and non-Microsoft products. This capability could prove particularly valuable for agencies that are consolidating and modernizing IT environments that include products from multiple vendors. Microsoft lists on its Web site which protocols are covered by its patents and therefore subject to "low royalty rates" for licensing.

Encouraging interoperability, Microsoft also is enhancing its Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications within the Office suite to support different file formats. Theoretically, a user could create documents using Microsoft Word, for example, but save them in a plain text or alternative open source format without risk of compromising content or rendering them unusable in other programs. Currently, Word, Excel and PowerPoint do not easily support different file formats, making document transfer difficult. This also will encourage more secure preservation of data by detaching content from the program used to create it.

"As users put more and more data into products, new sets of issues emerge," said Ray Ozzie, chief software architect at Microsoft. "We've learned that documents and data have a lifetime that frequently spans well beyond the lifetime of the application. Document preservation and portability have become vital concerns."

So far, open source vendors and supporters have responded to the announcement with skepticism. In a prepared statement, Michael Cunningham, executive vice president and general counsel for open source software vendor Red Hat said the latest news from Microsoft is "hardly surprising." "Eight years ago the U.S. regulatory authorities, and four years ago the European regulators made clear to Microsoft that its refusal to disclose interface information for its monopoly software products violates the law," Cunningham said. "We've heard similar announcements before, almost always strategically timed. Red Hat regards this most recent announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism." Microsoft's news conference comes only a month after another announcement touting the company's ability to host its software products, rather than require customers to purchase enterprise license agreements. Both announcements mirror the strategies of rival Google.

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