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Microsoft to Vendors: Let's Interoperate

If the European Union's constant brow-beating of Microsoft has had a positive effect, it's that Redmond has opened itself up to letting its products work at least a little bit better with those from other vendors.

Now, on the one hand, that's not all good news for Microsoft and its channel. After all, the "better together" pitch that Microsoft has used for years is a little bit weaker than it used to be. Prior to Microsoft's new era of semi-openness, a decent pitch when selling one thing from Microsoft was that a customer might as well buy everything else from Microsoft, too, because nothing works with a Microsoft product quite as well another Microsoft product.

That was true, in part, because Microsoft sometimes (often?) made it difficult and expensive -- which it had every right to do, RCPU says, although European courts disagree -- for vendors to let their products work with Microsoft's wares. In fact, the better together pitch is still valid, but Microsoft is in the process of changing its meaning. Redmond isn't, and doesn't want to be, quite as proprietary as it used to be. "Better together" could now mean, at least to some extent, working "better together" with other vendors.

And so, today, as part of its new message of openness, Microsoft unveiled the Document Interoperability Initiative, a global effort aimed at bringing vendors together to "promote interoperability between document format implementations," quoth the press release, or, basically, to test how different document formats work with each other on different platforms and try to develop templates that will allow different formats to work -- that's right -- better together.

Microsoft calls the DII (our abbreviation, not Redmond's) the first effort of its kind in the world -- and it will be global, with interoperability testing and discussions starting in the U.S. and then moving to Asia (South Korea, specifically) and Europe, Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards, told RCPU at a little press get-together in Cambridge, Mass. this morning.

"Our customers are telling us that some of them would like these templates because they could be useful in certain contexts," Robertson said. "We think vendors ought to come together to develop those. We want to be catalysts for bringing people together."

And some vendors have answered the call. Novell, notably but not surprisingly, was in attendance at today's event, as were a few smaller names -- specifically, Mark Logic (which sounds like some sort of nerd superhero), Quickoffice, DataViz and Nuance Communications. So what about, say, Adobe, Microsoft's rival and the originator of the PDF?

"We work with Adobe in a lot of different ways," Robertson said. "My sense is Adobe would find this to be attractive. I don't want to speak on their behalf as to when they would participate."

So, there's work to be done yet...and, frankly, we wouldn't blame some of Redmond's rivals for having a bit of trepidation about working with the software giant. After all, Microsoft does have a reputation -- well-earned, really -- for being a bit shifty in its dealings with other vendors. But this initiative, and most of Microsoft's new openness mantra, seems genuinely to be about opening Microsoft to the rest of the industry -- at least more so than in the past.

Well, it's about a couple of other things, too, of course, such as complying with EU competition regulations and court rulings. Robertson admits as much, saying that the European Court of First Instance's ruling, which upheld Eurofines against Microsoft last year, was a catalyst for Redmond's new Interoperability Principles (a proper noun, apparently, as Microsoft capitalized the phrase in its press materials).

"These principles absolutely are a step on our part to apply the concepts in the Court of First Instance decision across all of our high-volume products, but we have an eye on what the marketplace needs and what our customers have been asking us to do," Robertson said.

Beyond that, there's Microsoft's ongoing fight to get Office Open XML, the document format it created, adopted as a standard by the International Standards Organization. Incidentally, Open XML is already a standard, having been accepted as such in, of all places, Europe, by the ECMA International standards body. That means that ECMA actually "owns" the format now and that future evolution of it is in ECMA's hands, not in Microsoft's. If the ISO accepts Open XML, it'll own the format.

Robertson said that's important because customers and partners want to work with standardized formats rather than proprietary ones. (We would add here that Microsoft would surely like to score some openness reputation points with open source software actually making a move in some areas of the enterprise. Being proprietary apparently isn't as cool as it used to be. Score one for the Commu...uh, we mean "open source community" there.)

Of course, a standard document format -- the Open Document Format, or ODF -- already exists. We wonder how or why more than one standard should exist -- it hardly seems like a standard when that's the case -- although there are multiple standards in many different areas of the technology industry.

Robertson says that it's all about choice. Different user case scenarios require different formats, and users should be able to choose which "standard" (as in, not proprietary) format they want to use and help evolve. That makes sense, of course, and we're sure that it factors into Redmond's thinking.

But we also have to wonder whether Microsoft has the ulterior motive of wanting to compete with open source on what's more or less open source's turf, the international standards bodies. Getting Open XML accepted as a standard and then gradually letting it -- through the ISO -- squeeze the life out of ODF...What better way to hit open source right where it would hurt the most? Microsoft, more open than open source and deemed credible by an independent organization. Give that some thought. But don't hold your breath for it to happen; the whole ISO thing has been nasty and could get nastier.

Still, if the net result of the EU bulldogging the Open XML battle is Microsoft being a little easier to work with, fine. "You're going to see new entrants to the market that are optimized for interoperability with these high-volume Microsoft products the same way Microsoft products are," Robertson said today. "Long-term...You're just going to see a healthier IT industry."

Maybe so. Right now, for whatever reason, it seems as though we're seeing a more open Microsoft.

What's your take on Microsoft's new openness? Do you care about standard document formats? Why? Drop a line to lpender@rcpmag.com.

Posted by Lee Pender on 03/06/2008 at 1:21 PM


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