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'Fuzzy' royalties policies challenge Microsoft's open API pledge

The devil, the details, and Windows

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Mix 08 Royalties charged by Microsoft on Windows APIs and protocols are the next hurdle the company must clear in its wooing of open source developers.

Leading open source figures have questioned charges Microsoft makes on its protocols and APIs, with a call to clarify whether Windows server, client and application APIs and protocols that Microsoft has pledged to "open" will come free of charge, and how payments - if levied - would be collected.

Developers welcomed last week's move to publish the APIs and protocols, but Microsoft was called on to take rapid steps to clarify the current, "fuzzy" pricing situation. Microsoft has said it will publish a mighty wad of 30,000 pages of documentation.

Andi Gutmans, chief technology officer of Zend Technologies and a leading PHP contributor, told Reg Dev he's "very interested" in Microsoft's Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI) for sending emails from within a Windows application, which he'd like to see in PHP, along with APIs for Word.

Gutmans, though, said he's not confident he can use them without getting charged. He's called on Microsoft to cut through those 30,000 pages of documentation using a simple-to-follow table. "It's not very clear which pieces of the spec I can implement royalty free," Gutmans said.

Miguel de Icaza, leading his second effort porting a major Microsoft architecture to open source, warmly welcomed the decision to publish protocols and APIs, but predicted Microsoft would continue to draw flack for charging royalties.

De Icaza's Moonlight - an open source version of the Silverlight cross-browser plug in - is benefiting from access to Microsoft's test suites and from a Media Pack, a bundle of media codecs worth $1m that Microsoft has licensed from major codec patent holders.

"It's good that Microsoft is opening up the protocols, but in this world where Microsoft makes most of its money from corporate shipments and [where] we are moving into a world of online presence, the licensing of patents is such a tiny piece. Microsoft is getting heat for good reason - why are you trying to monetize this?"

Lack of clarity on what is royalty free and what is charged is likely to prevent open source developers from taking advantage of Microsoft's APIs and protocols, for fear of incurring hidden and excessive charges on products they build that incorporate Microsoft-authored interfaces and protocols.

That's a problem because access to Microsoft's protocols and APIs will help speed development, as developers don't need to re-invent the wheel, and improve interoperability between Windows and open-source systems.

Confusion seems to be a way of life for Microsoft, though. A major criticism of its Office Open XML (OOXML) effort has been an apparent attempt to railroad the specification by giving standards chiefs more information - 6,000 pages - than can be practically digested in the time available under the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO's) fast-track process. The rival Open Document Formant (ODF) weighs in at 722 pages.

Regulators, meanwhile, have repeatedly taken Microsoft to task for not publishing sufficiently clear details on pricing and terms and conditions of protocols released under the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program (MCPP), an initiative that came out of the US Government's long-running, anti-trust prosecution earlier this decade.®

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