There was something peculiar in the air at Microsoft’s third MIX conference in Las Vegas at the beginning of March.
Ray Ozzie, who took over from Bill Gates as chief software architect in 2006, spent much of his share of the opening keynote session talking about standards and openness and utility computing. Then Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft’s general manager for Internet Explorer, demonstrated the next release of the browser — and the focus was on standards compliance.
Hachamovitch showed an appreciative audience of Web developers how today, a Web page will render exactly the same in the Firefox and Safari browsers — IE’s major competitors — but differently in Internet Explorer 7. They knew that already, of course. Then he showed the same page in IE8. Lo and behold, it looked the same as it did in Firefox and Safari.
In other words, it appears Microsoft has decided to embrace World Wide Web Consortium standards, such as CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) 2.1, that are supposed to ensure that a Web page looks the same whatever you view it in — but never have because the single most popular browser didn’t conform to them.
It’s hard to praise Microsoft for doing now what it should have done years ago, but if the product delivers what the demo promised, this is awfully good news for Web developers and Web users. So I lift my glass to Microsoft, and hope the glass doesn’t turn out to contain Kool-Aid.
It’s true what Microsoft means by standards and openness isn’t always what others mean. And its true MIX is a conference for Web developers, a group that believes in openness because it makes their job easier. All the talk in Las Vegas was partly playing to the audience.
But in late February, Microsoft announced interoperability principles that include publishing application programming interfaces (APIs) for major products, licensing patents on “reasonable and non-discriminatory terms,” and documenting its support for industry standards, among other things.
Is all this for real? Despite spin being one of Redmond’s major exports, there’s probably some substance.
John Richards, director of Windows Live platform product management, made a good point in a lunchtime discussion with reporters at MIX. Software is moving away from monolithic applications to Web services and interaction. It will be tough even for Microsoft to succeed without playing nicely with others.
Second — and nothing illustrates this better than the proposed Yahoo acquisition — Microsoft really wants a better position online. It’s way behind Google in that space. And it’s even harder to do well there than on the desktop if you don’t open up to the rest of the world.
And finally there’s the legal incentive. The European Commission fined Microsoft again in February for failing to comply with its 2004 ruling requiring the company to publish information needed for competing networking software to work with Windows servers and desktops.
Was EU pressure one reason for Microsoft’s interoperability commitments? Of course. In an odd departure from the canned rock music you usually get before conference keynotes, MS hired a live performer to open for its executives — a 15-year-old Johnny Cash impersonator (hard to believe a kid that age could actually sound like the Man in Black, but he did). And I’m sure it was coincidence, but when I entered the hall for the first keynote, he was singing I Walk the Line.