Interoperability: the new buzz word in Microsoft

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2008 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Microsoft has often been accused, sometimes unjustifiably, of not being open, and of defining its own interfaces, protocols and formats and not wanting to interoperate with other systems or vendors. I am sure that a big book could be written on the history of Microsoft and interoperability with compelling evidence to support each side of the argument.

However, recently there have been a collection of announcements from Microsoft which highlight the word ‘interoperability’ and they appear to announce a change of direction, or, probably more accurately, a change of emphasis, in relation to working with a wider range of IT vendors, standards and industry bodies.

Late last year the Accessibility Interoperability Alliance (AIA) was set up with Microsoft as a leading member. It is a group of IT and assistive technology companies working to create and harmonise standards for accessible technology. I will be writing about the AIA in detail later this month.

The first major announcement of the AIA was that Microsoft had released the Windows accessibility model (UI Automation) under a Community Promise and had given the AIA control over its future direction. In conjunction with this announcement, Microsoft extended its relationship with Novell to make UIA Automation available on Linux and bridge into the existing Linux accessibility model (AT-SPI/ATK).

On February 21, 2008 Microsoft announced a set of broad-reaching strategic changes to its technology and business practices to increase the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability, opportunity and choice. These changes are codified into four new interoperability principles and corresponding actions:

  1. Ensuring open connections
  2. Promoting data portability
  3. Enhancing support for industry standards
  4. Fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities

This is an important announcement as it directly indicates a change of emphasis. But, like any announcement, it is the actions that follow that are the real proof. So far there have been two further announcements.

On March 3, 2008 Microsoft announced that, consistent with its efforts to promote further interoperability across the Web, it is now configuring the settings in Internet Explorer 8, the upcoming version of its browser, to render content—by default—using methods that give top priority to Web standards interoperability.

There has been for many years some annoyance amongst the web developer community that testing had to be done against a variety of browsers because of differences in how they interpret and render HTML. In particular, Internet Explorer (IE) did not follow the accepted standards. Developers often worked to the IE interpretation and this caused problems when pages were viewed using other browsers—especially on non-Microsoft platforms. Microsoft argued that they need to keep compatibility with previous versions of IE but, with this announcement, Microsoft is making a major move towards full support of standards. As the web becomes more complex with WEB 2.0 and Rich Internet Applications this move has become more important.

On March 6, 2008 Microsoft Corp. announced the launch of its Document Interoperability Initiative, which is aimed at promoting user choice among document formats and expanded opportunity for developers, partners and competitors. The Document Interoperability Initiative focuses on bringing vendors together to promote interoperability between document format implementations through testing and refining those implementations, creation of format implementation test suites, and the creation of templates designed for optimal interoperability between different formats.

To start this initiative Microsoft hosted, in Cambridge, a number of independent software vendors (ISVs), including Novell Inc., Mark Logic Corp., Quickoffice Inc., DataViz Inc. and Nuance Communications Inc., to launch this collaborative, community-based initiative. The Cambridge lab will test interoperability between existing implementations of Microsoft Office Open XML Formats and the Open Document Format (ODF) on a variety of platforms and devices including Mac OS X Leopard, iPhone, Palm OS, Symbian OS, Linux and Windows Mobile.

The list of vendors, platforms and standards suggest a real desire by Microsoft to improve interoperability.
Last year I wrote about Microsoft’s support for the Daisy format which is just another example of Document Interoperability.

On 10 March 2008 Sun and Microsoft announced expanded investment in interoperability with the opening of a Sun/Microsoft Interoperability Center in Redmond and the availability of the Sun Infrastructure Solution for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007.

I believe that this is all excellent news for the IT industry, as it should:

  • Require less energy to be put into trying to make things work together
  • Avoid the need to choose between incompatible technologies that always led to a sub-optimal solution
  • Enable developers to concentrate on creating better solutions
  • Improve accessibility for all, as specialist Assistive Technology (AT) was particularly badly affected by incompatibilities between standard technologies

I look forward to further announcements from Microsoft building on these initiatives and a positive response from the rest of the industry.