Gates' Customer Letter Blesses Interop

e-mail missive

His new mantra, "building software that is interoperable by design," will doubtless replace similar messages about building security into systems, observers said.

Gates uses his lengthy message to stress that open source software, the latest and greatest threat to Microsoft's dominance, is often mistakenly construed as interoperable software.

"Interoperability is about how different software systems work together. Open source is a methodology for licensing and/or developing software -- that may or may not be interoperable," he wrote.

Very similar interoperability messages are coming from virtually every software vendor. At OracleWorld late last year, interop between various systems was a key part of Oracle's pitch for "megagrids," for example.

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Gates also recapped the work Microsoft has done on promoting important standards and its reliance on XML to attain better interopability with non-Microsoft systems. Those with long memories might recall that the old Microsoft had difficulty ensuring that various versions of its own desktop applications could work well together, but the company has resolved those issues, partly due to its reliance on XML. The Office desktop applications now support various XML schema as well as their own formats.

Gates said that the company's focus on an XML-based Web Services architecture, which it is working on with competitors IBM, Sun Microsystems and BEA, will be a boon for customers.

Indeed, customer input has forced vendors, more used to beefing with each other in public forums, to work better together. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Sun CEO Scott McNealy last year said customer pressure motivated their companies to drop long-standing litigation and less-official squabbles and promise better interoperability of their respective wares.

Said one integration partner: "I note with interest the coincidence that this comes out at the same time announces integrating with Office meaning that salesforce can be accessed from Office apps, oh by the way, bypassing Microsoft's own CRM server."

This partner said that example epitomizes Microsoft's quandary: It must offer tight integration between its own products to solidify its power position but must also court and retain ISVs who write applications to run on its infrastructure.

These Microsoft messages, sent to customers and reporters, have become a regular feature of Microsoft's massive PR effort.

"I suspect the audience for this is substantially different than the type of people usually interested in Microsoft's missives," said Richard Warren, enterprise solutions architect for MicroLink, a Vienna, Va., Microsoft partner. "What Gates says draws attention at much higher levels of an organization than the guys sitting in front of Visual Studio in the bowels of an IT department. When someone this big talks, others in executive suites perk up and take notice. Gates is showcasing for the executive crowd issues around interop. Frankly it's so low level that most developers would say, 'well, duh!'"

Previous Gates letters touched on e-mail security and spam. They are typically heavy on positioning and light on news. This latest message does announce a new Microsoft web site devoted to-- interoperability.

Ballmer sent out a message in August on the company's efforts to improve software management across diverse platforms. And Gates kicked off the company's much ballyhooed Trustworthy Computing initiative in a similar message in July 2002.

Other long time Microsoft observers characterized these letters as much ado about nothing. "I'm not sure what the value is," said one longtime Microsoft partner.