Microsoft's plans to open up hidden programming interfaces in its Office and Windows products, should make it easier for IT directors to combine open source with Windows platforms.
The firm's newly announced interoperability strategy will allow third-party commercial and open source IT companies to tailor their own products to work more effectively with Windows software in heterogeneous IT systems.
At the same time, Microsoft is making it easier for third-party suppliers to develop products and services that will support older Microsoft file formats, a move that will be seen as a significant step forward for IT departments struggling with legacy data.
It was no coincidence that Microsoft's announcement came just a week before the European Commission ordered the firm to pay £680m for failing to comply with a 2004 order to stop its monopolistic practices. Microsoft, the Commission ruled, had previously failed to provide vital information to rival software makers.
Microsoft's latest plan is far reaching. It aims to promote data portability, support industry standards and foster more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities. IT directors running mixed Windows, Linux and Unix environments should benefit directly from this new level of openness.
Chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, said "Our goal is to promote greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for customers and developers throughout the industry by making our products more open and by sharing even more information about our technologies."
Gartner said that, overall, the strategy represented an important change in Microsoft's willingness to encourage interoperability. "We do not expect this new attitude will pervade the whole company, but we do think that attitudes are changing as new executives replace the old guard. But many members of the open-source community remain cynical, and the European Commission is seeking substantiation by action."
Many open-source software packages already run on Windows, but Gartner predicts that Microsoft's interoperability strategy will entice many open source developers to write applications for Windows in addition to Linux. This, the analyst firm says, should give IT departments a wider range of software to chose from. "More look-alike products to Excel, Word, Office and PowerPoint could emerge," it said.
Laurent Lachal, senior analyst at Ovum, said Microsoft's interoperability strategy not only represents a step forward for its approach to open source software, "It also means Microsoft is talking about open source software at the highest level of the company."
But although Microsoft has made strides to improve the way it now works with the open source community, Lachal said that businesses running open source software still risk infringing Microsoft's intellectual property, if their suppliers have not reached licensing agreements with Redmond.
"From an IP point of view, though, the company has not budged a bit. This announcement will make it easier for Microsoft to apply pressure on those open source software providers, such as Red Hat, who (unlike Novell, for example) have yet to sign a patent licensing agreement [with Microsoft]."
Tarzey said that Microsoft is now facing increasing commercial pressure from Google and the open source community, who are able to offer or free low cost alternatives. By opening up its internal programming interfaces, he said Microsoft would be able to use third-party developers to help to improve its software.
Microsoft products supporting the new initiative include Windows Vista (including the .Net Framework), Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007, and future versions of all these products.
Users welcome Microsoft's support for legacy document formats
Microsoft has responded to user-concerns over the incompatibility of outdated document formats. The software giant said it would extend Office 2007 to provide greater flexibility of document formats.
It plans to introduce new application programming interfaces for the Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office 2007 to enable developers to plug in additional document formats. Users will be able to set these formats as their default for saving documents.
The move will make it easier for organistions to store and retrieve historical documents, said Bob Tarzey, service director at Quocirca. "Archiving is a huge problem. The amount of information is growing that only exists in a digital form, so when people want to read an electronic copy of the Magna Carta in 1000 years time there will be a problem unless the industry uses open standards."
Ray Titcombe, chairman of the Strategic Supplier Relationship Group, said, "This is very encouraging action from Microsoft, recognising the issues over future 'legacy' document retention/retrieval and the need for an 'openness' approach."