Gates commits Microsoft to an interoperable future

Microsoft has pledged itself to an interoperable future. In an open letter to business leaders, Bill Gates says that Microsoft recognises that it can’t have it all and that the future for the company is in making its products work with those of other vendors.

In the letter Gates says ‘Over the years, our industry has tried many approaches to come to grips with the heterogeneity of software. But, the solution that has proven consistently effective – and the one that yields the greatest success for developers today – is a strong commitment to interoperability’.

In response, Microsoft will make increased efforts to allow its products to work with those from other vendors. The cornerstone of this approach, Gates says, is to develop an enhanced version of XML to act as a common method of communication between software.

From its beginnings in Basic and MS-DOS there now is hardly an area in business and consumer software that does not have a Microsoft offering. Desktop, backend, consumer, portable devices, mobile phones and the internet markets all have Microsoft as a player. However, governments and other regulatory bodies have become increasingly uncomfortable with Microsoft’s growing monopoly power. As a result both the US and Europe have taken steps to rein in the software giant.

In particular, the European Union has taken steps to penalise Microsoft from using its monopoly power to lock out competitors. In its landmark judgement the EU found Microsoft guilty of unfair competition and imposed a record fine.

On the face of it, Microsoft now seems to have taken that lesson on board. In April of last year Microsoft settled its interoperability dispute with Sun Micrososystems. At the time it was seen by many as a way of reducing its opponents as it prepared its appeal against the EU. Following this announcement by Gates, it may instead be seen as the start of a whole different strategy from Microsoft.

Gates also recognised that many customers simply do not like the idea of having all their software supplied by a single supplier. ‘Wholesale replacement of existing technologies is a tough sell for most organizations,’ he noted. ‘They simply have too much invested in a variety of systems from any number of vendors’.

Gates also couldn’t resist taking a pop at Linux saying that ‘Open source is a methodology for licensing and/or developing software – that may or may not be interoperable’.

However, we are not necessarily talking about Microsoft working in standards committees to find a set of common APIs and practices. He notes that Microsoft is already heavily involved in a wide range of standards committees but points out even then publishing standards is only half the story

‘Interoperability is sometimes viewed merely as adherence to a published specification of some kind, either from one or more vendors or a standards organization’, he said. ‘But simply publishing a specification may not be enough, because it overlooks much of the hard work it takes to successfully develop interoperable products’.

As a result Gates seeks to develop XML as a common method to allow software from different vendors to communicate with each other. This permits software to develop and grow in its own way and differs from the ‘middleware’ approach (championed by companies such as IBM) which tries ‘to make all systems compatible at the code level, focusing solely on adding new layers .. that try to make all systems look and act the same’.

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