Microsoft’s Interop Forecast Is Partly Cloudy

Today Microsoft laid out a major new interoperability initiative that’s meant to “increase the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for developers, partners, customers and competitors.”

During the press conference that Microsoft executives Steve Ballmer, Ray Ozzie, Bob Muglia and Brad Smith held this morning, much was made about the pains Microsoft is taking to include the open-source software community in the new interop initiative.

However, the legal environment surrounding interoperability between Microsoft’s products and the open-source applications that have sprung up to rival Redmond’s proprietary wares is scarcely less murky today than it was yesterday.

To Microsoft’s credit, the firm did make available for download almost 800MB of Windows Server and Windows Communication protocol specifications (in PDF format, no less) to join the 20MB of Office binary format specifications that Microsoft made available on Feb. 15.

Unlike those Office binary format specifications, which are covered under Microsoft’s we-pledge-not-to-sue-you Open Specification Promise, the Windows Server and Communication protocols are covered under a different, somewhat twisty promise that reminds me of the scene from Pulp Fiction where Vincent lays out for Jules the rules surrounding Amsterdam hash bars:

Me: Okay, so tell me again about the Windows protocols.

Microsoft: Okay, watcha wanna know?

Me: Open-source apps can interoperate with Windows now, right?

Microsoft: Yeah, it’s legal, but it ain’t 100 percent legal. I mean, you can’t just develop an open-source app that interoperates with Windows and start using it or selling it. I mean, we want you to use these protocols, but only in certain designated ways.

Me: Example?

Microsoft: Yeah, it breaks down like this, okay, it’s legal to develop open-source software with the Windows protocols, it’s legal to distribute those apps, but only for noncommercial purposes.

If you pay for our as-yet-undisclosed patent license, it’s legal to sell or use those apps, but but, that doesn’t matter, because … get a load of this, we have no intent to sue people who infringe on these patents.

But we might change our minds.

So where does that leave open-source developers who wish to build products that work well with Windows?

If I were developing open-source software, or if I were looking to build a business on open-source software, and if I allowed my applications to become entwined with Microsoft’s 30,000 pages of no doubt very useful specifications, I’d feel (to use another Pulp Fiction reference) like Marvin, riding along with Vincent and Jules, with Vincent’s handgun waving around casually in my face.

And you remember what happened to Marvin.

On the brighter side of today’s big news, Microsoft has pledged to detail the specific patents attached to the protocols and specifications it’s released today. That hasn’t happened yet, but when it does, it will give open-source developers something really useful to sink their teeth into.

Rather than rack up legal fees trying to figure out what counts as commercial versus noncommercial distribution, or how it’s possible to legitimately label an application with patent-based distribution encumbrances as “open,” the open-source community can get to work on working around the intellectual-property Maginot Line that Microsoft is trying to erect around its most vital competitors.

And I’ve got to say it: Royale with Cheese.