Before you run away from this page thinking that I will vomit the snakes of hell on Microsoft’s latest press release, I just wanted clarify that it will not be the case, because I think the message Microsoft has sent yesterday has been completely misunderstood. Here’s why.
To be sure, this press release should be taken with extreme caution; Microsoft will not make it easier for its competition to implement its own formats; nothing has been said about ODF, no particular mention has been made about OpenOffice.org and Free and Open Source Software. Rather, they’re still feeding the ongoing legal confusion and trying to pollute Free Software While Microsoft’s decision to open up its protocols and APIs s certainly welcome, it does not really help the Free Software world not its direct competitors. Perhaps more importantly, it remains to be seen if Microsoft will properly execute what it just announced. Disgruntled reaction? Not really. For years, Microsoft has pledged to comply with the legal requirements demanded by the US Dept. of Justice, and the European regulators. But it never actually delivered the documentation and the specifications it had promised to free. Only in 2007 did it open up some of its documentation to the Samba project. A good reaction summarizing the issues at hand on this announcement can be found on the ECIS web site.
What also makes me skeptical of this announcement is its timing. Just a few days before the BRM and right in the middle of the murky waters of OOXML lobbying, Microsoft just couldn’t have done better to spread confusion among the ISO delegates who will be arriving in Geneva in a couple of days.
However, I do think this announcement is important not because of what it announces, but because of what it implies in terms of public communication. Just by looking at the title and first sentences, you notice that besides the grandiose promises Microsoft is effectively, implicitely admitting it caused harm to the competition, customers, and to the ecosystem at large. Microsoft is not so much announcing new or revolutionary measures, as it is declaring publicly that its past talk about interoperability, openness and fairness was a bag of hot air doubled with anti-competitive practices. And yet, I’m putting things mildly.
Here you may ask about why I think it’s important. It is important because Microsoft is claiming that it will stop its former practices; I don’t think it will though, but in doing so they are effectively showing that they lost the moral struggle between them and the rest of the world. They implicitely admitted they had been wrong on openness, freedom, interoperability and competition. I think that anything they will say will have to be measured against that announcement. And this is why it is important. I do not know at this stage if Microsoft will one day evolve into a different company; open, innovative, responsible, and embracing competition. I sincerely hope it will. But at the moment I don’t think they are changing in any way.
This announcement may perhaps have made another loser out of the past situation: Novell. Novell banks on the fear, uncertainty and doubt cast by Microsoft to differentiate itself as a Linux player. Regardless of the quality of their solutions, Novell has one distinctive features for its customers: By claiming they offer them legal protection-by-proxy (Microsoft being in agreement with them), they pollute code with Microsoft’s intellectual property. The issue now for Novell is to sell the same value proposition to customers who just read something that is quite subtle to understand but that more or less amounts to, well, “now we’re nice and fair”. Perhaps it will force them to stop spreading FUD and actually sell solutions that come with the freedom to use, modify, study, distribute, and leave. Until that point, I’ll be skeptical.