February 24, 2008

Don't Compete and Microsoft Won't Sue

It's obvious that not everyone is happy about Microsoft's most recent attempt to woo the open source community by releasing API details and offering them for use with a covenant "not to sue open source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of these protocols".

It isn't yet clear exactly what qualifies as "non-commercial distribution", but it's an interesting approach: Microsoft has always complained (sometimes unjustifiably) about the GPL. Now authors of open source products can use the newly-released information as long as they don't gain commercial benefit by doing so. This could be seen as opening up, or simply as a nice piece of spite. It will definitely result in the development of interoperable projects that will take market share away from Microsoft, leaving software dollars looking for other places to be spent.

I suspect that a lot of people will say that this doesn't go far enough, but it's a sea change in Microsoft's approach and has doubtless taken lots of internal discussion. If you develop a commercial product based on Microsoft's patented technologies then you will still need a license from them before you go to market. As long as you believe software patents are reasonable this is nothing to complain about.

Personally I have never thought software patents reasonable, but Microsoft are to be congratulated for trying to promote their technologies in a more open way. Let's hope this is just the first step to fully open standards, only twenty years too late.


Doug Napoleone said...

The real problem here is when interoperability and standards come into play.

Microsoft is the de-facto standard for many applications. If you are going to compete, then you must also interoperate. That is why the EU is forcing Microsoft to open up. You can't compete unless you also work with. That is the nature of software.

But you can't do that. Not without paying money or getting sued (or even both, if you go in for the licensing packages which can be revoked instead of contracting for the patents explicitly).

When seen in conjunction with the upcoming OOXML vote, the timing comes under suspicion as well.

Andy Updegrove has an interesting take on all of this, and of course so does P.J..

Paul said...

If anyone is still ignorant about the effect of software patents on open source, they just need to familiarise themselves with the actions of Trend Micro against Barracuda. Patent predators like to portray themselves as unthreatening to open source projects until someone tries to make a living with such software; then, the predator moves in to "protect" their dubious monopoly.

We shouldn't legitimise Microsoft's non-standards. Instead, we should encourage genuine standards wherever possible and let that do to Microsoft what the emergence of widespread Internet usage didn't quite manage to do to them back in the 1990s.

Paddy3118 said...

I had thought that the major reason for making such details public was to comply with the EU and so stop the heavy, and accumulating, fines that were imposed on them.

Their recent attitude towards open-source could be seen as forced rather than an enlightenment on their part?

- Paddy.

Steve said...

@doug: Whatever results from this announcement it is unlikely to have any effect at all on the EU's investigation into Microsoft's attempts to pack the various OOMXL national bodies to gain approval for its "standard". Like you, it seems, I believe Microsoft will interoperate fully only when legally compelled to do so.

@paul: I agree that software patents suits like Trend's represent a threat to open source as well as to proprietary software. As regards interoperability the big mistake was not formally recognizing Microsoft as a monopoly when the anti-trust hearings were held. They have proven reluctant to any coercion but the threat of huge fines ... and even that reluctantly.

@paddy3118: I doubt the EU will see these moves as bringing Microsoft into compliance, and three investigations into various aspects of the company's business have been opened since the last judgement, which Microsoft still has not complied with.

Thank you all for your comments. It's nice to know I have discriminating readers ... or indeed, any readers at all :-)