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Microsoft Spins Legal Defeat into PR Fool`s Gold

If you didn’t know what was really behind Microsoft’s open standards and source promises, it might sound like Microsoft was making real changes.

You’ve got to give Microsoft credit for gall. They take a crunching defeat at the hands of the European Union court system for trying to conceal information and now that the court has forced them to reveal that same information, Microsoft is all about increasing “the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for developers, partners, customers and competitors.”

Urgh. Excuse me. I feel a little ill.

One publication’s headline, Microsoft makes boldest move yet embracing open source, shows that you really can fool some of the people some of the time. Listen, Microsoft is doing nothing but trying to turn a complete and total defeat into a PR victory.

All those things Microsoft promises it will do—opening up the APIs for its major programs, documenting how Microsoft supports industry standards and extensions, working on document interoperability—they’re all required by the EU decision. In fact, according to the EU, Microsoft didn’t go far enough in its announcement.

According to the European Anti-Trust Commission’s response to Microsoft’s news, Microsoft’s “announcement does not relate to the question of whether or not Microsoft has been complying with EU antitrust rules in this area in the past. The Commission would welcome any move towards genuine interoperability. Nonetheless, the Commission notes that today’s announcement follows at least four similar statements by Microsoft in the past on the importance of interoperability.”

Too bad Microsoft hasn’t lived up to its promises or its legal obligations. The EU Anti-Trust Commission statement goes on: “In January 2008, the Commission initiated two formal antitrust investigations against Microsoft—one relating to interoperability, one relating to tying of separate software products … Today’s announcement by Microsoft does not address the tying allegations.”

And what are those allegations? The same ones Microsoft claims it’s doing so much better with now.

“One of these investigations focuses on the alleged illegal refusal by Microsoft to disclose sufficient interoperability information across a broad range of products, including information related to its Office suite, a number of its server products, and also in relation to the so-called .NET Framework and on the question of whether Microsoft’s new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors’ products.”

The EU statement went on: “The second investigation concerns allegations of tying of separate software products, including Internet Explorer, to the Windows PC operating system.”

Ah yes, here we have Microsoft yet again spinning like crazy. The EU is requiring the company to show that it is now obeying the European court, so now Microsoft is saying, ‘Yes, see we’re proud of doing these things (which, oh by the way, you’re requiring us to do anyway).’

But is it even really doing that? Microsoft, for example, has had to open up its network and server protocols. It even came to an agreement with The Samba Group to let Samba, an open-source group, at its network protocol crown jewels.

But now, if you look at the fine print of what Microsoft is promising, you’ll see that Microsoft is only promising not to sue open-source programmers creating non-commercial software. If say, oh I don’t know, Red Hat, Canonical, or Mandriva were to use Samba, Microsoft seems to be saying that it’s business as usual and we just might sue you for patent violations.

I doubt they would. The EU is already hot on their trail. Microsoft also runs the danger of what I like to call patent MADness (Mutually Assured Destruction), but Microsoft loves to keep talking up its open-patent FUD.

One final thought for today: Isn’t it interesting how Microsoft is now all about document interoperability? What’s so special about today? It’s the day before the question of whether Microsoft is open is once more considered by the ISO.

To quote Andrew Updegrove, a partner with the Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP and a well-known standards expert, from his blog on today’s news: “I expect that there it is no coincidence that this announcement comes just two business days (and only one, for most of the world) before the Ballot Resolution Meeting convenes in Geneva next Monday. This will effectively give those participating in the discussions of Microsoft’s OOXML document format no opportunity to fully understand what Microsoft has actually promised to do, while reaping the maximum public relations benefit.”

You think?

I’d like to think that Microsoft really is willing to work and play well with others with open standards. Really, I would. But if you take a close look at this PR stunt, and that’s all it really is, and then look at Microsoft’s long history of making, and breaking, interoperability promises, well I don’t believe it for a New York minute.

At this point, the only Microsoft promise of peace and cooperation I’m willing to believe would be one drafted by SFLC (Software Freedom Law Center) head Eben Moglen and written in Steve Ballmer’s blood. Short of that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still business as usual for Microsoft.

Or, to make this even clearer, here’s a LOL Cat version, which does a nice job of reflecting my views. For those of you without your Microsoft and open-source leader score cards, from top to bottom, that’s Steve Ballmer, Eric Raymond, Bill Gates and Richard M. Stallman.

A version of this story first appeared in eWEEK.

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