EC to MS: protocol 'innovations' are nonsense

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (808 Words)

So it’s been over 6 months since the EC ruled that Microsoft had to share details of its protocols with other vendors in order to allow interpoerability, although it left the door open for MS to charge a fee for this privilege. MS came in just in time and delivered a 1500-page document explaining the protocols and came up with a 3-level pricing structure (bronze, silver and gold) which determined how many of Microsoft’s ‘innovations’ you were getting in those protocol definitions.

It’s obviously taken a little while to go through those, but the EC’s conclusion? That MS is both overstating the level of innovation present in those protocols, and is overcharging for them. If they don’t buck their ideas up and stick to the spirit of the original ruling (ie that other vendors should not be locked out of providing software that works with MS products - either by obsfucation or financial means), it’s more fines. I applaud them.

It’s clear as the nose on your face that MS isn’t interested in genuine interoperability. Of course they’re not (unless it helps them sell their own products) - they have an extremely sweet deal going on now where years of market dominance have allowed them to basically charge whatever they like - mostly through a tactic of providing cheap and less functional versions of other people’s software in the early years, then gradually increasing the price (and functionality) until it’s actually no cheaper than the other now-equivalent products (sometimes the opposite) but people are mostly locked in through the overtly tight coupling between product suites - I’d cite Exchange and SQL Server as prime examples of that. Whilst they’re good software, they are not worth the price MS now charges for them. Take SQL Server - it’s a very good database, but I was there when it started (using other databases at the time) and it got a foothold because it was cheap and easy to set up compared to others - now it’s playing with the big boys and even though it’s still lacking at the very advanced end, MS are charging enterprise prices for it and people still buy it because they’ve ‘grown up’ to be reliant on its close ties with other MS software. Same with Exchange and the Outlook coupling - I can’t believe how expensive Exchange is considering what it actually does. Given that this (mostly undocumented) tight coupling is really what keeps customers on board, it’s no wonder that MS doesn’t want to let other people get at them - so whilst the EC has forced them to open the protocols, MS is now trying to play the economics card to try to make it impractical for other vendors to get in on it, by claiming that those hidden protocols are ever so clever, don’t you know. I mean they must have had their top men on those. Top. Men.

The EC has concluded, like most right-thinking people, that all those ‘innovations’ in protocols that have been so roundly patented in the US for their startling genius, are actually “immediately obvious minor extensions of prior work”, or worse “Microsoft implementations of prior developments by others”. I look at most software patents these days and think “what a load of old bollocks”, and I’m guessing this phrase might have passed the lips of the EC a few times (in whatever language equivalent) whilst perusing the MS documents. Once again, the sheer folly of what patents have become and what ‘IP’ now means to large companies, especially in the US (ie ‘whatever we can write on a beer mat in the pub is our unique IP’), is displayed in all its grotesque glory. Gamasutra had a good article about it recently too which fueled my bile still further.

Good software is mostly about combinational complexity. Building on previous innovations and making things better. Through the patent system and a noughties obsession with defining Intellectual Property so leniently that it’s a largely worthless expression now, large companies are systematically balkanising the core principles on which new software is built, and are ultimately holding back progress and making the future a less interesting,  more dauting, and more litigous place. Which is why I applaud the EC for speaking up and calling bullshit when it needs to be called, instead of rolling over and kissing Microsoft’s plump rear end like the US government seems to do whenever MS subtly points out to them how much goddam money they put into the US economy, and thus maybe it isn’t a good idea to scrutinise them that closely. Democracy doesn’t work when lobbyists can throw massive sums of money at people, I wonder why they haven’t worked that out yet.

When anything and everything can be claimed as unique IP, it’s actually another way of saying that nothing is.