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Microsoft finally learning to let 'X' talk to 'Y'

The corporate bureaucracy has been slow to grasp that customers actually may want to take data from an Excel spreadsheet and pump the information into Google Maps. The mindset is finally changing.

Fortune had the best headline in the a.m. to describe the latest Redmond reversal: Glasnost at Microsoft.

Catchy, but was it entirely accurate? More about that in a moment. Briefly put, Microsoft promised to ensure interoperability with competitors' offerings by publishing technical information about its own technology. At the same time, Microsoft said developers will no longer need to obtain a license or pay royalties.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
Steve Ballmer: Finally getting the message?

For a deeper dive, here's the URL to our special coverage. Also, Erick Schonfeld over at Techcrunch had a post worth checking out.

The pledge triggered the predictable avalanche of press coverage. On the surface, at least, this amounts to a volte-face when you consider Microsoft's pugnacious history. So why did Microsoft conclude that it made sense to try and get along with everybody else in the big tech sandbox that is Silicon Valley?

As I read through Microsoft's Interoperability Principles, I was struck by a couple of things.

First, Ray Ozzie's fingerprints are all over this document. The Wizard of Oz, Microsoft's chief software architect, may be among the savviest technologists alive today, and it's been interesting to watch him navigate a huge, resistant bureaucracy. Since Ozzie's arrival after Microsoft acquired his company in April 2005, he's attempted with limited success to engineer a revolution from within.

In terms of vibe, at least, Ozzie has a keener appreciation of what developers and customers need than do the old hands at Microsoft. They talk the talk but still bring along a lot of baggage to any discussion about openness or interoperability. And for too long, the Microserfs' MO was kill, crush, destroy--and then issue a press release explaining why the targeted hit du jour was a good thing for all concerned.

Maybe it's because Ozzie is at heart the developer, par excellence, that he's pushed for a more pragmatic way to satisfy customer demands. He understands that the trend in software development is toward more composite applications. That is, programs built with feeds or the ability to be built using other apps. Along with data portability, these attributes now appear near the top of user wish lists.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the company's bureaucracy has been slow to grasp that, horror of horrors, customers actually may want to take data from an Excel spreadsheet and pump the information into Google Maps. But from Ozzie's perspective, Thursday's announcement was a no-brainer. Enterprise customers get something they crave. As for developers, they receive needed help because this is where the software industry is heading--with or without Microsoft.

Ray Ozzie
Maybe it's because Ray Ozzie is at heart the developer, par excellence, that he's pushed for a more pragmatic way to satisfy customer demands. Microsoft

Ozzie was once described to me as a technology optimist. While Ballmer, with his more global corporate-wide responsibilities, may focus on the risks of a step like this from a business perspective, Ozzie can play the role of house technology advocate, pointing out the new opportunities by making it easier for X to talk to Y. It's just that simple. The only question is why wouldn't Microsoft do it?

This may be the easy part. Microsoft also wanted to send a message to European regulators that it's a good corporate citizen. Judging from the European Union's initial reaction, Ballmer and Ozzie will be racking up frequent flyer points to sell Neelie Kroes, the EU's competition commissioner.

In a statement, the EU sniffed that while it would welcome any move toward "genuine interoperability," Microsoft has issued four other similar statements in the past. Not a gushing first reaction. Then again, consider the rancid history between Microsoft and the EU. It was only in October that Microsoft finally agreed to comply with elements of the European Commission's 2004 antitrust order that it had earlier termed entirely objectionable. But maybe old rivals indeed will decide to let glasnost inform their relationship, "going forward," as the MBAs are wont to say these days.

However the news finally gets interpreted across the pond, I wouldn't dismiss Ballmer's description of Thursday's news as "an important change." For once, he wasn't letting hyperbole get too ahead of the reality.