Is Microsoft turning over a new leaf?

This time, the company's talk of increased openness has some substance behind it, with APIs for the latest versions of popular apps for the first time

When Microsoft announced on Thursday that it was changing its business practices to be more open -- specifically to release documentation on its APIs and protocols -- many people reacted with disbelief. The European Commission, which has battled Microsoft for a decade over anticompetitiveness, said in very blunt terms that it didn't believe Microsoft was sincere. After all, Microsoft has made the "open" promise before but never delivered.

Yet in this case Microsoft's commitment may be genuine. For many years, developers have asked Microsoft to open up and enable them make to modifications to applications. By all appearances, that's exactly what the company is doing.

What Microsoft really did

In a show of good faith, Microsoft published about 30,000 pages of documents on the APIs and communications protocols for the latest versions of key products: Windows Vista (including the .Net framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007. A sampling of these pages, according to InfoWorld's Strategic Developer blogger Martin Heller, shows that Microsoft is providing real details valuable to professional Windows developers. "From what I've seen so far in a random sampling, the docs they posted have the inside information all right, and it's just as ugly and full of version-to-version changes as they've been telling us all along," he said.

What sort of modifications to Microsoft apps may result? For example, developers could change the default document format for Office, said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group. Although developers can now add additional file formats, they can't make them the default.

But under the new strategy, he noted, developers have the APIs to be able to add their own import/export standards -- even the Open Document Format (ODF) that the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the European Commission have approved. Moreover, the new API approach would let company's choose their preferred import/export formats as the default for Microsoft Office.

This shift meets a key requirement of several European governments that have mandated the use of a nonproprietary standard. Providing this capability also means Microsoft Office could still be used by those governments, who otherwise would have had to move to competing products such as OpenOffice.

Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal notes that Microsoft has not pledged to support the ODF document format outright. Nor has the company said it will ensure the quality of OOXML-ODF conversion, which he calls disappointing omissions.

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