Microsoft Corporation’s business practices have been put in the spotlight once again, following the European Union’s recent decision to slap the software maker with a $1.3 billion fine for failing to disclose the licensing structure of its interoperable patents and protocols.
But what’s bad news for Microsoft could be good news for independent software developers who want to create products that work with the Windows operating system and other Microsoft products.
The EU fine stems back to the European Commission’s historic 2004 antitrust ruling against Microsoft, in which the commission stated that the company was taking advantage of its monopoly in the personal computer operating system market to shut out rivals. It ordered Microsoft to release a version of Windows that did not include its Windows Media Player after critics claimed that the “bundled” version closed the door to other media player providers. The order also required that Microsoft release information that would allow other companies’ server software to connect to PCs running Windows. In addition, Microsoft was ordered to allow competing servers to interoperate with its servers.
All of this enforced openness was potentially helpful to rival server, server software, and media player providers, but the benefit for small developers is in the knock-on effect. Since the ruling, Microsoft’s business has come under scrutiny regarding its openness in other areas, such as productivity software, e-mail systems, and Internet applications.
The Redmond, Washington, based technology giant has surely felt the heat and has taken its own steps to embrace openness. Just a week before the EU levied its massive fine, the company published 30,000 pages of code for its Windows operating system that had previously been secret. The documents, which are public on Microsoft’s Web site, offer code for communication protocols and APIs on all of its big-volume products. This code is intended to allow outside developers to easily tie their products back to Microsoft. While this could be beneficial for developers who want to enhance Microsoft support on their own products, it’s not a move designed to allow them to compete.
However, Microsoft says it plans to release even more information that details exactly how their programs work together. This information could allow a third-party company to develop an e-mail system, for example, that works as well with Microsoft Exchange Server as Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail system.
If this information is forthcoming, we could be entering a new era of Windows interoperability. Looks like Microsoft has finally realized that it needs to allow third-party developers to build products that work with Windows to keep the platform interesting and engaging for customers. This means that small software companies and independent developers may finally have a shot at including support for their products on the Windows platform.
After all, it would be difficult for developers to ignore Microsoft. Its Windows operating system still has 91.5 percent of market share according to Net Applications, a Web-based application provider. In order to keep this share, Microsoft must open up and allow third-party developers to innovate on its platform.
Microsoft has even said that it will increase its communication with open source developers, but on a limited scale. The company plans to launch an online forum to engage the open source community and said that it would not sue them for building products based on its protocols as long as they are for noncommercial use. While critics see this as a move to fend off further EU action, at least the door has been opened a tiny bit. However, open source proponents say that the only way to definitively loosen Microsoft’s software monopoly is to allow open source products to freely compete with Microsoft.
They may have to wait a while for that to happen, but in the meantime at least independent developers can begin to dabble in interoperability with Microsoft products. Likewise, corporations may have an easier time making third-party products work with their Microsoft wares.
EU pressure may have forced Microsoft to open up, but in the end the software giant may decide that it has to embrace outside innovation to keep on top.