What's behind Microsoft's open-source deals?

General managers for interoperability at Microsoft argue that a boosted commitment to interoperability, as well as legal arrangements, are behind Microsoft deals with Linux vendors.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Microsoft views its string of deals with Linux vendors--the latest being Linspire, announced this week--as part of a broader companywide push to improve interoperability.

That's the word from Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards, and Jean Paoli, its general manager of interoperability and XML architecture (and a co-creator of the original XML standard). On Friday, the pair published an open letter, again calling on the industry to give the Office Open XML document format a fair shake as a standard.

Technology and legal pacts with open-source companies serve dual purposes, they said in an interview Thursday with CNET News.com.

First, such pacts establish a way for Microsoft to make its products work better with those from other vendors. They also create a legal structure for Microsoft--a strong proponent of patents and intellectual property protections--to operate in a world where open source is commonplace.

"It's an issue of coexistence in the marketplace," said Robertson. "We have to find a way to address intellectual property issues and interoperability issues."

Customers don't want to deal with any potential legal liabilities from open-source products, just like they don't want to do the work to make products from different vendors work together, he said.

"We believe in IP (intellectual property) and we believe innovation comes from IP," Paoli said.

In November, Microsoft signed a controversial patent-sharing and interoperability deal with Novell. That was followed by similar partnerships with Linux distributor Xandros and Linspire, which were both announced in the past week.

Microsoft has had discussions with Red Hat and Ubuntu, two other Linux distributors, but has been unable to reach any kind of deals, Robertson said.

When Microsoft and Novell announced their partnership, Red Hat executives said they would not pay an "innovation tax" to Microsoft.

Earlier this year, Microsoft said it has identified 235 patents that Linux infringes on.

One or many
In their open letter published Friday, Robertson and Paoli argue that customers should have choice of document formats--a hot-button that has energized Microsoft competitors and introduced a good bit of rhetoric as well.

With Office Open XML, Microsoft has sought to standardize XML-based document formats it uses in Office 2007. It submitted these specifications to international standards body Ecma, which modified them with participation of other vendors. That Ecma standard is now making its way through the ISO process, which Robertson said could be completed next year if it is accepted.

In the open letter, Robertson and Paoli argue that customers favor a choice of formats, rather than a single format.

The OpenDocument Format, or ODF, is already an ISO standard and has become a viable alternative to Open XML, particularly among government customers. ODF has the backing of Microsoft rivals IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Some people argue that Open XML is not developed in a process that's as open as ODF and that it has technical flaws. ODF advocate Sam Hiser published an analysis earlier this month.

Robertson asserted that within 5 or 10 years several other document formats will emerge and will coexist with today's formats.

Paoli noted that there are several formats in different areas, such as media files. Translation between different formats is also viable option and, indeed, one of the points of using XML, he added.

The choice of document standards can be very significant because it can dictate the choice of desktop software. As a result, there's an intense lobbying by IBM and Microsoft, notably among government customers concerned with long-term access to digital documents.

Technical merit
In all the media coverage and blog discussions, there has been little discourse on the technical merits of Open XML versus ODF.

Given the money at stake and wide range of views on what constitutes an "open standard," it's perhaps not surprising that most discussion has been around Microsoft and its relationship to open source and standards.

The market will clearly decide which standard, or standards, will stick for which purpose, perhaps even taking both the openness and technology strengths into consideration.