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Microsoft's openness pledge: What's the reality?

Let's give the company a little credit: it's a great step in the right direction. But it's not exactly manna from heaven.

I've taken some flak from the anti-Microsoft crowd for my positive report on Microsoft's openness pledge. I stand by my position but think it's also worth taking a deep breath (all of an hour later :-) and recognizing Microsoft's position for what it is.

This is not manna from heaven. It's surely self-interested on Microsoft's part, as Mary Jo of ZDNet suggests (OOXML vote coming up next week, anyone?). This might be a little too cynical, however, as this has been in the works for months.

So let's give the company a little credit. It's a great step in the right direction, but it's not manna. Here's why:

  • Open APIs and open protocols, but you still have to pay to use Microsoft's IP. So you can look but not use without a fee. The ultimate openness pledge would have included both access and use for free, but it's not going to happen anytime soon.

  • Even so, it's important to recognize how much content Microsoft is opening up. I've talked with Microsoft before about the API and protocol access it's opening up, and it started at $10,000 and up. The fact that it is opening up access is a significant move for Microsoft and should not be deprecated lightly.

  • Microsoft is (re)committing not to sue (noncommercial) open-source developers, and (re)committing to let commercial open-source developers pay to use its IP. No change here. The first commitment is mostly a way to ensure Microsoft gets paid by downstream commercializers of open source, so you can think of it as a channel sales program. :-) Microsoft would have done better to provide a more far-reaching program as IBM has (PDF), but Ballmer still has too much of a fetish for IP. Give him time.

  • Microsoft is allowing third-party developers to integrate their file formats into the next version of Office. Basically, this is a way to stave off use of OpenOffice by enabling developers to plug OpenOffice formats into Microsoft Office. It's a way to pull in value to Office, not give away value.

And so on. There's a little (or a lot of) self-interest in each of these endeavors, as there should be. Microsoft is not the Red Cross. It's a corporation.

For me, however, as a competitor to Microsoft, I think this greater transparency is a step in the right direction. Will it go anywhere? That's for Microsoft, prodded by you and I, to decide. So let's keep prodding.