In a splashy announcement Thursday, Microsoft Corp. touted new efforts to improve the interoperability of its key software products with open-source projects and products from other vendors.
Some in the open-source and free software communities, however, were underwhelmed. Asked about Microsoft's move, several said the company's new "interoperability principles" are more talk than substance.
Under the initiative, Microsoft is publicly releasing more than 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows protocols and APIs -- information previously available only under special licenses -- as one of several changes in how it deals with open-source developers and software rivals. Calling the four steps "interoperability principles," Microsoft promised to make it easier and cheaper for developers to create software that works smoothly with its highest-profile and most current products.
The list of products includes Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007 and Office SharePoint Server 2007, as well as all future versions of those programs. The company also plans to promote data portability, enhance its support of industry standards and work more closely with the open-source community. Under the initiative, Microsoft protocols covered by patents will be freely available to open-source developers for "noncommercial" purposes, and the company agreed not to sue anyone who uses or distributes protocol implementations in noncommercial instances. Companies would still have to license Microsoft's patents, however, if they use them in commercially distributed software.
Therein lies the rub, said Peter Brown, executive director at the Boston-based Free Software Foundation.
"They have made pledges before," Brown said. "This is a clear attempt to still keep free software and the work under the [General Public License] away from the Microsoft platform. Our community is already well aware that the offer is pretty useless because of the noncommercial requirement. No one will do this in the free software community."
By adopting such language, Brown said, Microsoft is essentially telling free software developers to "stay in your basement" and don't come out with useful code. "It's great for free software developers as long as they don't interact with the real world" and create code for commercial software.
"I continue to be wary of Microsoft's stance toward free software," Brown said, adding that the new principles appear "to be a show for the European Union," which continues to review antitrust actions against the company.
"I'm pretty unimpressed," Brown said. "It's business as usual for Microsoft. If you market [software created under the new rules], then you'd have to pay royalties to Microsoft, which isn't done under the GPL and free software. It's a fake offer in many ways as far as our community is concerned. They would need to make all the implementations free from any conditions."
Michael Cunningham, executive vice president and general counsel at Linux vendor Red Hat Inc. said in a statement that "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."
If Microsoft were really committed to fostering interoperability, he said, the company would "commit to open standards, rather than pushing forward its proprietary, Windows-based formats for document processing, OOXML.
"Microsoft should embrace the existing ISO-approved, cross-platform industry standard for document processing, Open Document Format at the International Standards Organization's meeting next week in Geneva," Cunningham said. "Microsoft, please demonstrate implementation of an existing international open standard now rather than make press announcements about intentions of future standards support."
The company should also "commit to interoperability with open source" rather than "offering a patent license for its protocol information on the basis of licensing arrangements it knows are incompatible with the GPL -- the world's most widely used open-source software license."
In addition, Cunningham said, Microsoft should "commit to competition on a level playing field.
"Microsoft's announcement ... appears carefully crafted to foreclose competition from the open-source community," he stated. "How else can you explain a 'promise not to sue open-source developers' as long as they develop and distribute only 'noncommercial' implementations of interoperable products? This is simply disingenuous."
Others in the open-source community weren't as skeptical of Microsoft's motivations.
Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation in Beaverton, Ore., said the latest effort is "very similar to language that they've expressed in the past," with a few unique differences. "They specifically announced that open source is something they want to work with and interoperate with, [while] not describing Linux and open source as a 'cancer' as it once did.
"That's good stuff, that's new, that's meaningful," Zemlin said. "They see that the world and their customers and regulators and governments around the world are demanding openness and they really mean it this time. Microsoft has to see this new requirement where openness is a new defining technology, not a closed, single monopoly. It's a clear acknowledgment that that's where the world is moving. At the same time, they've said this before, so it will take time to see if Microsoft is going to walk their talk.
"Take OOXML, their alternative document standard, off the table and support the existing standard, ODF; I think that would show people that they're willing to walk their talk," Zemlin said.
Juergen Geck, chief technology officer at Open-Xchange Inc. and former CTO of SUSE Linux AG, said the new Microsoft initiative is "good news for us and the market at large."
Geck said the principles don't necessarily mean that licensing fees would have to be paid to Microsoft in every case, even if interoperability is improved. "It's going to be much more complicated than dealing with an [entirely] open environment, but we're dealing with Microsoft. It's a good step in the right direction. They could do more, but it doesn't put us in a position of complaining about them in general. Ninety-five percent of the market wants to run Windows. It's not fair to blame Microsoft for that."
Meanwhile, Bill Hilf, Microsoft's platform technology strategy general manager, said the effort could show the company in a better light in the open-source and free software communities.
"This makes us more difficult to be the enemy, because we're providing what they asked for," Hilf said. "The real issue for open-source developers related to Microsoft, in the broad sense, has not been about access to Microsoft source code -- although that's the issue for what I'd call open-source theologians -- but instead about access to Microsoft protocols and APIs. This is giving them that. They can now write products with the same protocols and APIs that we use to build our products."
So far, "the reaction has been very, very positive," Hilf said. "I've gotten lots of e-mails from open-source developers, who said, 'This is what we've been asking for.'"
Hilf, who went to Microsoft four years ago from IBM, where he led that company's Linux and open-source software technical strategy, said "We're always looking at ways we can do better with our own software."

Computerworld's Gregg Keizer contributed to this story.