Well I guess the announcement by Microsoft on 21st February of a change of policy and attitude towards being ‘open’ and using ‘standards’ could be taken as a sign that a very fundamental shift in the software industry has taken place. You can read the full announcement, watch the video, maybe even get a tee shirt on the Microsoft web site. Personally I would recommend reading it in full if for no other reason than the amount of comments, or opinions, it will attract is already considerable and there is nothing like knowing what the original said.
You can get two opposing views, a positive one from the webworkerdaily.com and a negative one, but with a well structured argument around Microsoft’s history of previous announcements from groklaw.net. The quick summary is that, and I quote from their press release; “Microsoft is implementing four new interoperability principles and corresponding actions across its high-volume business products: (1) ensuring open connections; (2) promoting data portability; (3) enhancing support for industry standards; and (4) fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities”.
My interpretation is that there are no extravagant claims here, no 360 degree turnarounds to embrace open source, or even claims that everything will be based on standards, and no change in the revenue business model ether. BUT a wholly practical, and very useful change, in what is to be documented and made public that, taken at face value, should be warmly welcomed by all. And by all I mean existing and new users, system integrators, software vendors and the open source community.
Opening APIs and Communication protocols enables the functionality of Microsoft products, which is after all the mass market, to be extended, increasing their value to users, and the opportunity for the rest of the software market to provide that extended functionality. I don’t think the average user is actually too concerned beyond this point, and I suspect it’s the answer for many CIOs to more than a few questions too. Actually I argued that this was the move required, more than the unlikely total move to Open Source, in a previous Blog back when Microsoft was under pressure from the European Union under the theme of ‘openness or interoperability’.
So why is there still criticism? Well it’s certainly not pure Open Source, and the argument from the Open Source advocates seems to be at least consistent, whether it’s talking about Microsoft or others, and it revolves around the license terms. The one thing that didn’t get any mention in the release as far as I could see. The open source community wants a clearly universally understood position around the General Public License, GPL, so there are no ‘surprises’, and is not over happy with the Microsoft, and some other large commercial software vendors for not adopting it. Those vendors will argue that if they do adopt it then all their code will end up in the public domain and this will be a respective donation of millions of hours and dollars of work, so they need to find a way to protect this.
So, what does that mean? Clearly the existing products will still be provided under the same licensing structure, and equally clearly there is a tremendous opportunity to use the new capabilities to link to, and extend, their functionality. I guess that the commercial developers will be onto that to bring out new products, but how will we license, or use these new products, and will there be any royalty payment to Microsoft as they have required in the past? It’s a complex topic and some of the past elements such as the Microsoft – Novell agreement have added to the complexity of how open source integrates to Microsoft.
So I suggest taking a look at the Microsoft Interoperability site which in the Press release is quoted as the basis for the whole initiative and in particular take a read through the Microsoft ‘open specification promise’ and really scanning down the page beyond the first paragraph of the promise. Still looks to me like we need a lot more clarification, but I hope this will come and make what seems to be a really promising move come true.