Interoperability - Four Points

Part 1 in the series: Interoperability

Let's start with the real issue at hand - interoperability. Our customers care about interoperability. In fact, they rank it right up there with security and reliability when they consider what is most important to them. What's more, our customers consistantly rate Microsoft's products as the most interoperable in the industry. What is interesting, and somewhat troubling to me, is that they rate the products as the most interoperable, but not Microsoft itself. So there is a disconnect somewhere, and real issues to be addresed. We need to listen more carefully, and learn what we can do to improve in this area.  

It would seem that the discussion of interoperability not achieved solely by standards has caused some concern for Andy Updegrove - an adovocate for standards in general and for ODF in particular. I contend that if you hold the belief that interoperability stems from standards to the exclusion of other mechanisms then you are doing a disservice to anyone trying to address real computing concerns.

There are four methods that my friends (Tom Robertson and Scott Edwards, both called out in Andy's blog posting) and I think about in helping Microsoft products to achieve interop. And yes Andy, this is reflected in the choice of words of our employees. Build it into the products by design, collaborate with others, standards, and IP licensing. Let's take a closer look...

1) By Design: interop should be built into the products as a design feature. This is not a marekting ploy - it is a technical goal. Last I checked, you can connect Windows to dozens of other operating systems, tens of thousands of applications, it supports a POSIX subsystem to enable Unix-based apps to interoperate with apps on Windows, hundreds of thousands of devices and hardware configurations... With additinoal products like the Host Integration Server - we connect (yes, using standards-based protocols) to mainframes and the transactional systems supported there. But the product offers management features, extensible features, etc. that reach beyond the standards and enhance customers' interoperability capability. The point is - any of the major software vendors are building interop into their products - it is mandatory to be useful in customers' heterogenous environments.

2) Collaboration: this is the one that got Andy upset. Companies, at least those that stay in business, are responsive to their customers and partners. They are always seeking partnerships and/or structured relationships to improve their products' opportunities in the market. It is not quite the nefarious spin that Andy puts on it in his blog. AOL, Yahoo, and MSN cusotmers were annoyed that there was not compatibility on IM. So the three companies came to agreement to make that work. Nokia wanted to put Microsoft's ActiveSynch into Symbian to offer better mail solutions to their customer - so an agreement was made. Our customers also build J2 solutions and were quite pleased at the announced collaboration between JBOSS and Microsoft. All of these are examples of enhancing interop. None are nefarious. All are predicated on the desire to improve the useful life of commercial products. 

In fact, anyone watching the standards space as closely as Andy does should know that there are whole classes of "standards" that are formed based upon industry collaborations. Special Interest Groups frequently refer to their work-products as 'standards." Industry Consortia are arenas where commercial players with the ability to invest resources in the standards-setting process can come together to find consensus on technologies. Careful - they might be collaborating in those meetings. tsk tsk

3) Standards: Standards are descriptions of technologies constructed in environments that encourage participation and result in the opportunity for multiple, competing implementations. One of the less constructive arguments in the doc format debates of late has been the idea that there should only be one standard of doc format now that ODF has achieved ISO standardization. VHS/Beta, 802.11a/b/g, EISA/PCI, MPEG/H.264, USB/IEEE1394...there are many, many more. My point is that there should be competition in the market - and that advocating a decrease in choice seems counter productive. Market-based solutions will ultimately win out in these scenarios. Interoperability is improved by standardization, but not solved.

I had an interesting conversation with the CTO of a very large broadcast network who informed me that he has approximatly 20 different types of devices that support MPEG - yet no real interoperability between them due to the feature sets offered above and beyond the standard format. So there is an element of interop - but these device manufactures weren't building it in by design (as specified above). hmmm.

4) Intellectual Property Licensing: this is the method that most of our detractors don't like to hear us talk about. Yet the one that Bob Sutor should advocate the most heavily unless he wants to say that the $1B+ in revenues earned on patent licenses is somehow unfulfilling for him. But I digress - sorry. The fact is, by making patents available for licensing you are increasing the ability for others to utilize your technologies and that improves interop. Also, by licensing copyright (source code licensing) you can improve interop. Logo programs where trademarks are made available for use improve testing and use the marketing impact of the trademark as the carrot for interop work. All goodness in the end for the customer.

In the rest of Andy's comments he refers to our efforts to discuss the issues around file formats as a big lie. I'm sorry that we don't agree with your point of view, Sir - but it seems to be topping it a bit high given the overall tone of this debate so far.

For example, in a presentation to governments in Asia and around the world (uh oh, more of those nasty corporate talking points), IBM is advocating that governments "aggressively avoid trade secrets and proprietary software APIs and protocols: they will lock you in and take control away from you." (<cough> Z/OS, <cough> Websphere, <cough> DB2). 

So, in short, the lines are being drawn on differences of opinions of the roles of standards, and that debate is healthy. To assume that because we don't agree with your positions on the  document format debate there is some sort of massive lie is not up to the intellectual standards set in many of your other postings.