Microsoft Opens Arms a Little Wider With 14,000 Pages of Tech Specs

Microsoft is continuing to make good on its promises of openness. The Redmond software behemoth posted an additional 14,000 pages of preliminary versions of technical documentation of Microsoft protocols that should help third-party developers — including open source developers — build more interoperable applications.

The latest round of protocols are for Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007. As of this moment, Microsoft has publicly posted more than 44,000 pages of protocol documentation, the company said, including documentation of technology that Microsoft said is patented.

The protocols include documentation of how Microsoft solutions connect to one another.

“Microsoft is pleased to announce today another step toward putting our interoperability principles into action with the public availability of these protocol specifications,” noted Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft.

“We believe that providing open, consistent access to these protocols will further unleash the creativity of all developers to work on real-world interoperability solutions. The implementation of Microsoft’s interoperability principles is an important component of our overall efforts to promote interoperability in the marketplace,” he added.

Expanding the Microsoft World

Microsoft noted that developers working with SharePoint protocols will now have additional resources to develop products that work with Microsoft Office client applications and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server products. The idea is that these specifications will help spark the energy and imagination of countless developers to create new products and improve existing solutions, the company noted.

The protocols that have been posted so far are only preliminary versions — Microsoft plans to gather input from developers as they review the documentation until June. At the end of June, Microsoft plans to post final versions of the documentation.

Not Exactly Goodness of Heart

As Microsoft has traditionally held tight to its proprietary technologies, the company’s movement toward openness has raised questions regarding its motives.

“Well, there’s no doubt that the EU has had an impact on these decisions, but it’s still a positive development,” Stephen O’Grady, an industry analyst for RedMonk, told LinuxInsider.

“How positive it is will depend on the reactions of developers and ISVs (independent software vendors) that attempt to use these to interoperate,” he added.

Patents Still in Play

Previously, simple access to Microsoft protocols involved trade secret licensing deals, but now there’s no fees or licenses to sign. However, protocols that might be covered by Microsoft patents are fair game for “reasonable and nondiscriminatory” license terms at low royalty rates, the company noted.

Perhaps most importantly, Microsoft will publish a list of the protocols that are covered by patents and will make available a list of the specific Microsoft patents and patent applications that cover each protocol.

Open source developers, whether commercial or noncommercial, are getting a free pass to use patented protocols as long as the distribution of these implementations remains noncommercial.

Value TBD

Even though Microsoft did vow to open the books somewhat, it never promised to make its notes easy to understand. Just because Microsoft has posted thousands of pages of protocols doesn’t mean that they’re understandable and that mere mortals will be able to implement them.

“Protocol documentation can vary widely in quality and usability, so we’ll need more experience with the protocols before we know how useful they are,” O’Grady said.

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