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EU skeptical on Microsoft's interoperability conversion


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lesles avatar
Posted: Fri Feb 22, 2008 09:18
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The EU and Microsoft have been at loggerheads for years, so it was no surprise to the see the EU weigh in almost immediately on Microsoft's announcement that it was committing substantial new resources to standards support and interoperability in its major products. The EU's response? Prove it... and we may drop an investigation.

In brief but pointed comments, the European Commission "took note" of today's Microsoft announcement but declared itself skeptical. "The Commission would welcome any move towards genuine interoperability," it said in a statement. "Nonetheless, the Commission notes that today's announcement follows at least four similar statements by Microsoft in the past on the importance of interoperability."

The Commission goes on to describe its own investigation of Microsoft over various interoperability concerns. Launched in January 2008, this investigation is unrelated to the recently-settled antitrust case against the company that dragged on for years.

In case you needed a reminder of why people don't trust Microsoft, the SCO watchers over at Groklaw took a break from those duties this week to post a 1997 internal Microsoft memo on technology evangelism (it surfaced as part of a court case). That memo (PDF), which started with the heading "Evangelism is War," said in its first paragraph that "every line of code that is written to our standards is a small victory; every line of code that is written to any other standard, is a small defeat." The document goes on to discuss how to buy off analysts, stack conference panels, and secure "independent" reports that favor your position.

One star for each MS investigation?

At one point, an included slide deck shows the phrase "We're just here to help developers" crossed out, and the next slide proclaims, "We are here to help MICROSOFT." It's brutal stuff?software as hand-to-hand combat.

More than a decade has passed since then, of course, and Microsoft has been chastened by antitrust investigations in both the US and the EU, along with the rise of web apps and cloud computing. It's also being forced to retool in order to stave off threats from Google.

But, as both Groklaw and the EU responses make clear, Microsoft has little credibility when it comes to standards, interoperability, and support for the open-source ecosystem. Even Microsoft's steps to improve its reputation are met with skepticism, in part because different voices from within the massive company sometimes appear to say different things.

Delivering on promises to offer new APIs for Office 2007 (APIs that will allegedly make it simple to include .ODF file support as the default option) and opening up 30,000 pages of documentation on server protocols will help, but the company has such a long way to go that these moves will only be seen as the first, baby steps on the road to competing fairly in a standards-based world.

So what pushed Microsoft to make its announcement now? The EU investigation that started in January seems to have played a role, as it explicitly addresses the interoperability issue. After a string of legal defeats and the subsequent battering of its public reputation, Microsoft may not be up for yet another fight with regulators.

The EU noted in its statement that it would "verify whether Microsoft is complying with EU antitrust rules, whether the principles announced today would end any infringement were they implemented in practice, and whether or not the principles announced today are in fact implemented in practice." If they are, it sounds like at least one facet of the EU's investigation may be concluded, but Microsoft is still under investigation for bundling products and for the ways it has pushed OOXML as a file format.

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