In-Depth

Is Microsoft Finally Ready To Play Nice?

The company appears as if it wants to work cooperatively with competitors.

In the playground that is software development, Microsoft is trying to recast its image from the one who makes up the rules to one who can work with others to create those rules and, just as importantly, abide by them.

Talking about interoperability and cooperative development with competitors, however, is hardly something new for Microsoft. As far back as 2002, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the company would strive to form closer partnerships with its rivals and become reliable and consistent in implementing established industry standards. Even recently, Microsoft general manager Bill Hilf has said his company's work on helping shape industry standards and interoperability is "one of its most progressive areas."

So while it's clear Microsoft wants to be a kinder, gentler software giant, it's difficult for rivals to believe the company is sincere when it refuses to support the Open Document Framework in its newest version of Office. Instead, Microsoft is proposing its own Open Office XML (OOXML) specification. Bob Sutor, IBM Corp.'s vice president of standards and open source, interprets this as a "sign that Microsoft is still reluctant to compete purely on standards and wants to lock customers into proprietary file formats," he says.

OOXML is currently being reviewed by the International Standards Organization (ISO), but rivals are questioning the need for OOXML when ODF was already an established ISO standard.

In January, Microsoft caused a furor when it offered to pay Rick Jelliffe, an Australian programmer and standards activist, to correct any inaccuracies in OOXML-related articles on Wikipedia. Critics claimed Microsoft was trying to slant the articles in its favor, yet Jelliffe noted on his blog that there were some obvious errors, such as discussing the ISO process, which raised more eyebrows about Microsoft's promise to work and play nice with others.

To its credit, Microsoft has pledged commitment to work with rivals for the greater technical good. Also in January, OpenAjax, an industry consortium pursuing an open-standards approach to AJAX, invited Microsoft to participate. The group extended the invitation because of Atlas, the company's AJAX development framework. This potentially gives Microsoft a chance to lead the effort, much in the way it showed leadership for XML and Web services.

Microsoft has also openly cooperated with IBM to drive standards in the past, but has generally been uneven in its implementation of those standards. Over the past several years Microsoft has collaborated with Big Blue on Web services protocols and other related technologies. These include eXtensible Markup Language (XML), Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), Web Services Description Language, and Universal Description Discovery and Integration (UDDI), most of which have been broadly adopted.

The two jointly launched the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) in February 2002. That consortium, however, said it wasn't a standards organization, but a profiles group. WS-I creates profiles to guide companies on how to group certain Web services standards and versions together -- and those profiles should drive adoption of Web services.

Microsoft has had an up-and-down relationship with the W3C, although the company was instrumental in getting HTML and CSS approved as standards. For instance, Microsoft's Charlie Kindel was a working member of that group that served to standardize HTML and CSS in 1995. The group also looked at XSL, a style sheet language required for transformations. In fact, five of the 11 authors of the XSL proposal came from Microsoft.

Ironically, even though Microsoft worked with W3C on CSS, its Internet Explorer (IE) browser had a lot of bugs in its CSS support. IE3 was the first browser to support CSS, but IE5 still had problems with CSS1 support and only a portion of CSS2 was supported. IE6 fully supported CSS1 but the bugs were not corrected. The most recent browser, IE7, released last October, has fixed many of the bugs and improved CSS2 support.

Aside from its participation with industry standards bodies, Microsoft has also entered into several different alliances with major competitors where each side promised to lay down its arms and work to improve their technologies.

Take Sun Microsystems Inc. In April 2004, Sun CEO Scott McNealy and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer set aside years of bitter rhetoric to jointly announce a $1.95 billion agreement to resolve legal issues and a 10-year partnership to share technology. Despite the intention to share and create products based on the other's technologies, both companies have so far only paid lip service to establishing meaningful interoperability.

Skeptics saw the deal as Microsoft mainly paying Sun off to make Sun's lawsuit against them disappear. Approximately $700 million went to resolve antitrust issues, $900 million to resolve patent issues, and $350 million was an upfront royalty payment. The legal dispute between Sun and Microsoft goes back to 1997, when Sun filed a $35 million suit against Microsoft for making changes to the Java software to "optimize" it for Windows.

The two companies did publish two specifications in 2005 to support single sign-on utilities in Microsoft Windows Server, the Solaris operating system and Java Enterprise System. The specifications -- Web Single Sign-On Metadata Exchange (Web SSO MEX) and Web Single Sign-On Interoperability Profile -- would allow single sign-on for platforms using Sun's Liberty Alliance Identity Federation Framework or Microsoft-supported WS-Federation. To date, however, Web SSO MEX and Web SSO Interop Profile still have not been submitted to W3C or IETF.

Sun and Microsoft engineers are also designing a single business process to run seamlessly across the Java platform and the .NET framework using WSIT technologies. Sun will support WSIT in its Sun Java System Application Server. Sun and Microsoft demonstrated Microsoft's software could run on Sun's hardware using WS-Management. The specification is similar to an OASIS-approved standard, WSDM.

Microsoft has historically been hostile towards open source, especially Linux, with Ballmer referring to the open source operating system as "a cancer." But in a surprising move last November Microsoft and one the leading Linux distributors, Novell Inc., announced a multimillion-dollar business agreement covering virtualization, Web services for server management and Microsoft Office-OpenOffice.org compatibility.

More importantly, the two companies agreed to a patent covenant for each other's customers. Microsoft has said in the past that Linux violated some of its patents, but never specified which patents it held. Under the agreement, Microsoft would not sue Novell's customers for infringing its patents, and Novell would not sue Microsoft's customers. Customers who'd shied from open source products in the past because of intellectual property concerns could view SuSE Linux as "safe" because of the covenant.

Working off the momentum from the Novell announcement, Microsoft unveiled the Interop Vendor Alliance less than two weeks later. The 22-member alliance, financed by Microsoft, will share product information. However, Redmond said it wouldn't reveal any proprietary source code.

The open source community has greeted the Novell-Microsoft agreement with little enthusiasm. Microsoft's divide-and-conquer strategy has set Novell apart from the rest of the Linux community. Novell is paying Microsoft royalties in exchange for being safe from Microsoft while other Linux distributions, including Red Hat Inc. and Debian, are not.

Like most open source, SuSE Linux is covered by the GNU Public License (version 2) from the Free Software Foundation (FSF). FSF's Richard Stallman said that the covenant is "technically valid under the license," but that the loophole would be closed in version 3, expected to be released this March. The GPL also requires that source code must be distributed with the application. It will be interesting to see how Microsoft complies with this, with its insistence on not revealing proprietary source code.

About the Author

Fahmida Rashid writes on a range of high technology and biotechnology topics and has worked as a technical consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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