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What Microsoft’s open APIs mean for open sourceMatthew Aslett, February 21, 2008 @ 11:30 am ET
Microsoft has announced that it is to provide rivals and partners with free access the APIs and protocols it uses to ensure interoperability between its core products (Windows Vista and Server, Office, SQL Server, Exchange and SharePoint), as well as a new strategy that is focused on open access, portability, open standards and engagement with the open source community.
The announcement has implications for the entire technology industry, but also specifically open source. Here is The 451 Group’s take on the announcement:
“Nudged by the European Union’s Court of First Instance, but more likely the result of a hard look at market dynamics and the competition, Microsoft has opened up its APIs and pledged to work more openly with the rest of the industry, including the open source community, on interoperability and standards issues. It’s an acknowledgment that in today’s world, many more flowers bloom when platform companies make their APIs completely open for developers to write to, a la Google and MSFT’s recent investee, Facebook. This is yet another thing Google has taught the largest software company in the world. It appears on the face of it that Microsoft now intends to live by the merit of its products, rather than rely on lock-in.
“As a result, developers should gain the potential to tie applications more closely into Microsoft’s Windows, SQL Server, Office and Exchange Server products with greater flexibility and innovation, perhaps through self-sustaining developer communities. SharePoint could also benefit from a platform approach, becoming a de facto central application for large segments of the market. And Microsoft is aiming to make open source applications run as well on Windows as they do on Linux, enabling it to continue competing against Linux while at the same time accepting and working to support open source projects.”
As for the open source implications:
It is worth noting that the new strategy will see Microsoft providing a list of the patents and patent applications that relate to the protocols and formats it uses for the named products. This should mean that open source developers are able to identify some of the 235 patents Microsoft previously claimed were infringed by free and open source software and will be able to license them (on RAND terms), attempt to develop around them, or challenge their legitimacy.
Additionally, while there are a number of drivers behind this announcement (the European Court of First Instance rejection of its appeal, the growing adoption of web services and SaaS) the announcement shows that the open source/open standards movement has demonstrated that an open approach can be more fruitful in developing partnerships and business opportunities.
Of course by opening up Microsoft could take the wind out of the sails of open source. Making its APIs and protocols freely available makes them closer to de facto standards and could potentially reduce drive to develop direct alternatives. The approval of OOXML as an ISO standard is crucial to maintaining Office’s market share of course (and let’s not forget the ballot resolution meeting that will decide OOXML’s fate is just days away).
Then of course there is the fact that Microsoft is happy to see open source software succeed – as long as it is deployed on Windows. While Windows-Linux interoperability does come in to play here, encouraging open source development on Windows is a bigger driver. Microsoft is happier limiting its competition with open source to Linux.
Meanwhile, despite the speculation elsewhere, Microsoft’s promise not to sue developers of open source projects for infringement of patents, as with the Novell agreement, is limited to non-commercial open source developers, which is of questionable value in reality.
And the announcement doesn’t quite level the playing field just yet. While the APIs and protocols are open and the patents are licensed on RAND terms, distaste for the patent system will prevent many FOSS advocates taking advantage of the program, and Microsoft still has source code- and wider patent-licensing agreements at its disposal for select partners.
All that said, this is clearly a welcome move from Microsoft and a potenially industry-changing initiative that will confound some of its strongest critics.
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