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U.S. judge praises Microsoft's open-source steps

In contrast to European overseers, judge presiding over Redmond's U.S. antitrust compliance has kinder words for its recent attempts to better accommodate open-source developers.

WASHINGTON--The judge presiding over Microsoft's U.S. antitrust compliance on Friday commended the company for recent steps designed to make its documentation more accessible to open-source programmers.

At a periodic court hearing with company and government attorneys here, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said she found the changes "very interesting" and "dramatic." She also said the move "does seem to represent quite a change from Microsoft's previous approach over the years."

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly U.S. District Court in D.C.

"I'm glad people aren't afraid to make changes when it's brought to their attention," she said during the meeting in her courtroom, which lasted a little more than an hour.

A few weeks ago, Microsoft unveiled a new "interoperability" strategy, which included publishing the documentation for the application programming interfaces and communications protocols in its "high-volume products" and vowing not to sue open-source developers who create noncommercial software based on its products. It also agreed to make protocols covered by its patents available for licensing on what it calls reasonable terms.

Previously, such documentation was available in a more limited form and only to licensees who signed agreements not to reveal the code to others. As part of its antitrust agreements in the United States and the European Union, Microsoft set up programs in which it licensed its communications protocols. During the past three years, it has increasingly been attempting to talk up standards support and interoperability and reach out to open-source developers.

Kollar-Kotelly's reaction comes in stark contrast to the way the move was perceived by European Union regulators. The European Commission reportedly told Reuters that the announcement "does not relate to the question of whether or not Microsoft has been complying with EU rules in this area in the past." The EC in late February hit Redmond with a record $1.35 billion fine, arguing Microsoft had charged unreasonable prices for licensing of its interoperability protocols and patents across the Atlantic.

Open source developers, for their part, had mixed reactions to the news.

So far, the company has placed some 30,000 documents online and recorded about 80,000 downloads during the past few weeks, Bob Muglia, senior vice president for Microsoft's server and tools unit told the judge on Friday. He said the decision reflects a "change in the industry" and increasing recognition on Microsoft's part that it can expand its business better if it doesn't close off its protocols.

"This really does represent, as you said, a very dramatic shift," Muglia told Kollar-Kotelly, later adding: "If we do it right, it can be good for our business."

Microsoft isn't out of Kollar-Kotelly's crosshairs yet. At the urging of state plaintiffs, she recently opted to extend her oversight period over Redmond by two years, until November 2009. On Friday, she said she hasn't ruled out the possibility of extending it further--the states, after all, had asked for a five-year extension, until 2012.

Stephen Houck, an attorney representing a group of state plaintiffs that includes California, said the plaintiffs view Microsoft's open-source accommodations as "moving in a positive direction" but warned the company would continue to undergo scrutiny.

"What is crystal clear," he said at Friday's hearing, "is Microsoft is still under various obligations flowing from the final judgment."