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Microsoft Windows protocol walls tumble down

With Microsoft's decision to open its APIs and protocols, developers and IT managers are finally on a road to true interoperability.

For IT managers who purchased all Microsoft systems because Windows works better with Windows, that barrier is about to fall.

With the company's disclosure today that it will be publishing the file sharing and user authentication protocols for its major platform products, such as Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007, IT managers may find fewer hurdles getting from one system to the next.

"It's hard for multi-vendor IT shops to move from the PC to a Mac to Unix, and the industry has been on a path toward reducing the impedance from communicating from one node to another," said Jonathan Eunice, a principal at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H., consulting firm.

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With this, Linux boxes, Unix, AIX, mainframes and any other piece of gear will be able to talk more intimately with Active Directory or a file server, and Microsoft clients can talk to a Solaris box or a mainframe, Eunice said.

A well-guarded enclave

"The Microsoft world, like the mainframe, has been one of the most insular with all Microsoft talking to all Microsoft," Eunice said. "Interoperability will get better as developers get access to this [information]."

Specifically, Microsoft said it will publish on MSDN more than 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade secret license. The company said protocol documentation for additional products, such as Office 2007, will be published in the upcoming months.

Microsoft will indicate on its website which protocols are covered by Microsoft patents and will license all of these patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, at low royalty rates, according to the company.

Microsoft is also designing new APIs for Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office 2007 to help developers plug in additional document formats and to let users set these formats as their default for saving documents.

A push from the EU

The decision was likely presaged by some decisions handed down last year by the European Union demanding that Microsoft open up these protocols. A team that develops Samba, free software that provides file and print services for Windows among other things, had been reverse engineering Microsoft protocols. The EU decided that Microsoft had to provide Samba with this proprietary information.

The move is one in a line of actions that sees Microsoft trying to undergo a difficult technological and cultural change. "With the recent Microsoft bid on Yahoo and now this, I think Microsoft is trying to redefine itself," said Vincent Balbarin, a system programmer at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Microsoft really wants to play at the enterprise server level and any type of openness is going to mean IT managers can run Windows on their existing infrastructure more readily, Balbarin said.

"It didn't really pay for [Microsoft] to hold all the APIs and make it proprietary, especially if they do move in that Software-as-a-Service direction," Balbarin said.

The decision to open these protocols is a huge change in how Microsoft shares products. The industry can now expect greater transparency and interoperability, according to Ray Ozzie, chief software architect at Microsoft.

"Our long-term success depends on our ability to deliver on our Software-as-a-Service platform that is open and available and gives customers choice," Ozzie said. "We are committed to living up to our legal obligations around the world."

In a statement, the European Commission said that while the commission welcomes any move toward genuine interoperability, there have been at least four similar statements made by Microsoft on the importance of interoperability.

Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel said it was "qualitatively and quantitatively different from any step we've taken in the past."

He said the 30,000 pages of technical documentation posted for free on the Web took years and millions of dollars of software engineering work.

Christina Torode contributed to this report

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