EU settlement will alter Microsoft's stance on interoperability

Microsoft provided more details about its settlement with the European Commission (EC), pledging to implement a threefold approach to interoperability.

Microsoft provided more details about its settlement with the European Commission (EC), particularly with regard to interoperability agreements.

In a blog post on Thursday, Dave Heiner, Microsoft's vice president and deputy general counsel, claimed that the company has pledged to implement a threefold approach to interoperability that EC Commissioner Neelie Kroes outlined in past speeches.

Heiner summarized that approach: companies should disclose technical information, provide a remedy if the information is inadequate and charge equitable royalty rates for associated intellectual property.

Kroes had also specifically called for companies to follow open standards as one of the best ways to achieve interoperability. However, Heiner omitted the word, "open," from his comment. He said that "products from different firms can work well together when they implement common, well-designed industry standards."

Microsoft's interoperability pledge announced this week appears to continue ideas the company put forth in February 2008. At that time, the company announced broad interoperability principles as well as APIs for software developers working with Microsoft's mainline products, including Windows client and server operating systems, Exchange, Office and SharePoint, among others. Microsoft has been releasing documentation for that purpose, with "hundreds of Microsoft developers" devoted to the effort, according to Heiner.

The new elements to Microsoft's interoperability pledge appear to be warranty and patent-sharing templates. Those documents, and more, can be accessed at the end of a statement about the settlement by Brad Smith, Microsoft's senior vice president and general counsel.

Essentially, companies can sue if they think Microsoft is not following through with providing proper API documentation, according to a blog post by Groklaw, a frequent Microsoft critic and a site devoted to software legal issues. The Groklaw post noted that nothing has really changed for commercial software companies working with open-source software under the GNU General Public License because Microsoft's interoperability agreement appears to restrict commercial distribution of software without royalty agreements first being in place.

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) backed that view.

"The patent commitments are clearly insufficient, because they don't allow commercial exploitation," said Carlo Piana, FSFE's legal counsel, in a released statement. "This keeps out competition from Free Software, which in many areas is the biggest competitor to Microsoft's programs."

The European Committee for Interoperable Systems (ECIS) was also skeptical.

"Whether the public undertaking will create a more level competitive playing field where open source software is not subject to Microsoft patent FUD [fear, uncertainty, doubt], as has been the case in the past, is not yet clear," the ECIS declared in a released statement.

Microsoft has previously dealt with open-source software producers by promising not to sue them for infringing Microsoft's intellectual property, provided that they sign agreements with Microsoft. A deal struck with Novell over the interoperability of Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Server and Windows back in November of 2006 caused an outcry from many open-source software vendors as Microsoft pressed companies for similar agreements.

The EC's inquiries about interoperability with Microsoft's products stem from a complaint by Sun Microsystems about the interoperability its Solaris UNIX-based operating system with Microsoft COM objects and Active Directory. In addition, the EC separately investigated an allegation that Windows Media Player had been integrated with Microsoft's Windows operating system in a way that violated European competition laws, as described in Case T-201/4.

This week's settlement with the EC originated from a complaint by Opera Software on browser competition in Europe. Microsoft also agreed to a browser screen for Windows, making it easier for users to choose a browser other than Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Although Microsoft settled the browser competition complaint, a statement from the EC indicated that the Commission will continue to observe how the interoperability agreements are carried out.

"The Commission will carefully monitor the impact of this undertaking on the market and take its findings into account in the pending antitrust investigation regarding interoperability (see MEMO/08/19)."

Microsoft's "Interoperability Undertaking" document, which is one of seven interoperability documents provided with Brad Smith's commentary, does commit Microsoft to certain standards support. Microsoft also plans to document how it implements those standards within its products.

For instance, the document states that Microsoft will follow the ECMA 376 specification in Office 2007. ECMA 376 is a standardized version of Microsoft's Office Open XML document format scheme. The interop document also alluded to future Office implementation of IS 29500, which is the international standard for Office Open XML that was published last year. In addition, Microsoft will support the ODF 1.1 standard in Office 2007 Service Pack 2, including the ability to make OpenDocument Format the default choice in Office.

Microsoft is also committed to supporting POP3 and IMAP4 protocol standards for Microsoft Outlook and Exchange, as well as various iCalendar data format standards. Internet Explorer 8 and future versions of the Web browser will pass the Acid 2 test as well as W3C test suites for "HTML 4.0, CSS 1.0, and CSS 2.1," according to the interop document.

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