Microsoft 's Steps Towards Interoperability
And we all stood back and applauded heartily as the giant knelt down and handed over the blueprints to his castle...what? you didn't applaud too?Yesterday, Microsoft announced the release of Version 1.0 technical documentation for Microsoft Office 2007, SharePoint 2007 and Exchange 2007 as an effort to drive greater interoperability and foster a stronger open relationship with their developer and partner communities. They also posted over 5000 pages of technical documentation on Microsoft Office Word, Excel and PowerPoint binary file formats on the MSDN site royalty-free basis under Microsoft’s Open Specification Promise (OSP).This is a good thing isn't it? It clearly demonstrates Microsoft's commitment to interoperability and data portability.Not everyone agrees...

The Commitment of Interoperability

Microsoft has its own website dedicated to the discussion of Interoperability. Their stated approach? Interoperability by Design: "By design entails not only engineering excellence in our products, but also includes community collaboration with customers, partners, and competitors; providing access to our technologies through licensing and translation tools; and by engaging in standards-setting activities."The announcement yesterday is a step towards interoperability. It comes in three initiatives:* Version 1 technical docs: The release of Version 1.0 technical documentation for their most high-volume products -- Office 2007, SharePoint 2007 and Exchange 2007.A preliminary version of this documentation was released in April - this latest version has been updated based on community feedback. The documentation covers the protocols for each product and will help developers understand how the products talk to each other, as well as help them develop new applications that can integrate with these products.* 5000 pages of technical docs on Office binaries: Covering the binary file formats binary .doc, .xls, .xlsb and .ppt, developers will now be able to read and write files in these formats - a good move towards sharing data across applications.* Several new Document Interoperability Initiative Projects: Three new initiatives include: working with the Beihang University to develop Uniform Office Format (UOF) translators for Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint, designing a new translator to read from Open XML to HTML and Developing PowerTools PowerShell commands for Open XML.Along with the release of the Version 1 technical documentation for Office, SharePoint and Exchange, Microsoft has also released patent information for some of the protocols. Which means that if you are developing a solution to sell, you will have to shell out some money. Open source implementations will not have to pay royalty fees.According to a quote from Microsoft in an InfoWeek article, documentation for Windows, Windows Server and SQLServer will soon follow.

Feedback from the Community at Large

Depending on which camp you primarily live in, you probably have mixed feelings about this announcement. The Microsoft developer and partner community are likely happy to finally have some documentation at their fingertips to design and build integrated solutions -- like this comment from the ReadWriteWeb post on the news: "...this sort of decision by Microsoft is a massive deal - now web app vendors developing agile, user friendly applications can stitch an output layer into the platform people actually use, and give them the best of both worlds: an awesome, AJAX driven, Web 2.0 application which has social features and have it actually work in the *business* context that most IT users around the world use. (Geoff McQueen)But many are still skeptical. Marshall Kirkpatrick from the ReadWriteWebasks the questions, "Is this what data portability looks like? Or are these steps just being taken to fend off legal challenges concerning unfair monopolistic practices? Does that matter, really, if the effect is the same?" He also wonders, like many others, if this is just another one of Microsoft's ploys to keep themselves in the center of the game. The GoogleGazer remains very skeptical: "This is all quite a far cry from Google’s approach, which has been to put over a million lines of code into the public domain, and to publish its APIs with enough documentation and sample code to make it really easy to build robust applications."Nik Cubrilovic over at TechCrunchIT thinks this is a good thing: "I believe we really are seeing a new Microsoft here - and their actions are really starting to speak louder than their words. It wasn’t too long ago that it was almost impossible to imagine Microsoft releasing documentation for Office file formats, or collaborating on a universal format adaptor for Office on Sourceforge..."Maybe it's not the step that everyone thinks they should be taking. Maybe there's more Microsoft could do to truly open it's applications for interoperability and data portability. But it's hard not to agree with Nik -- it wasn't that long ago that Microsoft kept it's secrets buried deep inside and didn't even let its partners in. Big organizations are always slow to change -- that's the nature of the beast. So maybe we shouldn't be heartily applauding, but a little nod of acceptance certainly wouldn't hurt. Would it?