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Microsoft buffs image of openness, one deal at a time

Microsoft was never known as a bastion of standards compliance. But over time, courts, customers and the network have forced the company to open up and interoperate.

When the International Organization for Standards ratified the Open Office XML document format earlier this month after a long public battle, Microsoft finally got a global endorsement of a standard it had developed.

This was the latest example of Microsoft releasing specifications or backing a standard because it needed to appease regulatory bodies that would impose fines for lack of compliance. IT executives had also been demanding greater interoperability from the software vendor.

A closed ecosystem has a plus side. It can be a vibrant environment that gives great amounts of control to developers, resellers and customers. In the consumer world,

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Apple has had tremendous success and it doesn't seem to bother anyone that the company has total control of its hardware and software.

"Customers are pragmatic about using proprietary components, and open source is done by committee," said Jonathan Eunice, principal at Illuminata, the Nashua, N.H., consulting firm. "That's not the way the world works. Customers are not driven by religion but by getting a job done."

But the world has changed for Microsoft and its franchise, which was built on controlling its APIs, its document format and the IT environment, and by not easily allowing others to make substitutions in the Windows stack.

In late February, Microsoft said it would release 30,000 pages of documentation on file sharing and user authentication protocols on MSDN. The decision came after word that the European Union demanded these protocols be opened for access by Samba, a team that develops free software that provides file and print services for Windows.

And this week, Microsoft posted to MSDN an additional 14,000 pages of technical documentation for protocols built into Office 2007, Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Exchange Server 2007.

Embracing interoperability

Microsoft's skeptics suggest that the company's new stance would seem more sincere if an EU ruling hadn't been looming and it wasn't facing substantial penalties. Still, the company keeps its intellectual property close, and there are still many unpublished protocols at Microsoft, though many can be licensed for a fee.

There are also lots of times when the company has conformed. Its hardware security platform, Palladium, long ago transformed into the industry supported Trusted Computing Group. Microsoft has aggressively collaborated on XML-based Web services standards. There is also support for Linux through its virtualization software and through collaboration with Novell Inc.

In a world of networked applications, openness is a necessity to connect, and the reality is that Microsoft has been trying to engage more with the network, partners and a worldwide business, Illuminata's Eunice said.

But it's not easy when the franchise is based on control and being able to control.

IT forces interoperability

Tom Robertson, who is Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards, agreed that the company's reputation is not one of openness among the IT community. Microsoft has made important changes, however, and he said he doesn't expect Microsoft's image to transform overnight.

"It will take time for it to percolate through the system and for IT managers to see the results," Robertson added.

In June 2006, in order to get a better fix on what sorts of interoperability is top of mind for IT shops, Microsoft created a 41-member Interoperability Executive Customer Council. It held its third gathering of CTOs and CIOs last fall. The group has identified various interoperability issues it wants Microsoft to work on.

"We want the IT guys to come in and shake us up," Robertson said.

Working with the customer council, Microsoft has resolved numerous scenarios, such as improving interoperability of third-party and open source development tools with Visual Studio and Team Studio. And its System Center Virtual Machine Manager offers support for VMWare v. 13 virtual environments and will eventually support the Xen hypervisor.

Through the group, Microsoft will allow programming access to Unified Communications Server from non-Windows platforms and will improve interoperability between third-party applications and SharePoint Server.

The company also formed the Interop Vendor Alliance in 2006, a group of 25 companies with the goal of making sure its products interoperate. Members include former arch enemy Sun Microsystems Inc. plus a handful of vendors that make software based on open source code, including SugarCRM and XenSource, which is now owned by close Microsoft partner, Citrix Systems Inc.

Robertson said interoperability activities permeate much of Microsoft at this time, but he knows that everyone expects the company to do more.

And going back to the Apple example, a vendor can still offer proprietary technology and still succeed. If something works and works well, people won't say it doesn't interoperate, we won't use it, said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash., consulting firm.

"Over time, it will break down, but initially.... Look at the iPhone," he said referring to its proprietary platform. "People buy it because it does what they want. But there is a certain level of connectivity that will matter."

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