Some open sourcers keeping open mind about Microsoft pledges

Microsoft's pledge to improve interoperability between its products and open-source applications drew mixed reaction from the open-source community.

Microsoft made a mountainous down payment on its high-profile pledge Thursday to improve interoperability and warm up its relationship with the open-source community, releasing some 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols. After digesting the news and at least some of the documentation, the reaction within the open-source community was varied, ranging from cautious praise to outright scorn.

"Our initial reaction was, 'Wow, great'," said Dominic Sartorio, president of the Open Solutions Alliance, an advocacy group backed by open-source vendors. "Now, 24 hours later, we've had a chance to look at it a bit more."

Microsoft's plans are "certainly not a fundamental change," Sartorio said. "They're not relinquishing patents, not open-sourcing code."

However, the value of even this incremental move will be substantial, Sartorio predicted. "Customers have been demanding interoperability between Microsoft and open source for a long time," he said. Systems integrators and other third parties will now "create this groundswell of interoperability," he said.

Other open-source players didn't take as long to reach a similar conclusion.

"The uncertainty and lack of information around Microsoft specifications has hindered the development of open-source solutions which leverage that technology," wrote Andi Gutmans, co-founder of Zend, maker of an open-source Web development platform and a Microsoft partner, in a blog post Thursday. "Microsoft is now enabling the open-source community to grow its contributor base around such technologies and significantly improve the delivered quality. As most open-source developers and users live in heterogeneous environments, this will benefit many."

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, was slightly less effusive in a prepared statement, also issued Thursday, but hardly negative.

"As Linux use continues to rise, so does the demand for customers to enable it to interoperate with Microsoft products. This announcement by Microsoft seems to indicate they want to participate in that march," it read in part.

Red Hat weighed in with heard-it-before skepticism.

"We've heard similar announcements before, almost always strategically timed for other effect. Red Hat regards this most recent announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism," said Michael Cunningham, executive vice president and general counsel of Red Hat, in a blog posting on Thursday.

Andy Updegrove, an attorney with Gesmer Updegrove in Boston and an advocate for the Open Document Format (ODF), a rival to Microsoft's Open Office XML (OOXML) format, offered measured praise to Microsoft. But echoing many others, he also suggested the company's announcement had an underlying agenda.

"I expect that there is no coincidence that this announcement comes just two business days (and only one, for most of the world) before the Ballot Resolution Meeting convenes in Geneva next Monday," he said in an e-mail Thursday, referring to Microsoft's ongoing attempt to get OOXML recognised as a standard. "This will effectively give those participating in the discussions of Microsoft's OOXML document format no opportunity to fully understand what Microsoft has actually promised to do, while reaping the maximum public relations benefit."

Ultimately, Updegrove contended, the announcement stems from the effect of "multiple market forces" on Microsoft, from antitrust investigations to competition from rival vendors pushing alternative software offerings. "Taken together, these forces are pushing and pulling Microsoft in a direction that it would have been highly unlikely to travel otherwise."

Microsoft's decisions are always pragmatic, and rumors of its impending demise are greatly exaggerated, suggested John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester Research, in an interview Friday.

"They've made an accommodation. They've accommodated the market. Microsoft has always followed the market," he said. "Does this mean that the giant has fallen? That's a bit much. That's grandstanding, or fun talk over a beer."

Sartorio echoed Rymer: "They are not doing this to score popularity points. Customers are demanding it. It's not just the source code being open; customers just want more transparent styles of interacting with their vendors."

The major advantage now is that the question of Microsoft's transparency can be put to a legitimate test, and not simply be caught up in a never-ending maelstrom of opinion or perspective, said James Governor, an analyst with Redmonk.

"I agree with some that Microsoft has made big 'interop' announcements before, but never with anywhere near this level of clarity around the specifics," Governor said by e-mail Friday. "Clear public principles and policies is a lot better than FUD and innuendo. Public policies will help to define Microsoft's actions, and give us a way to measure its behaviour, and if necessary, censure it."

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