Staff Writer, CNET News.com
In a statement published late Thursday, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates pledged that his company will continue to work hard at software interoperability.
In a missive offered via the company's Web site, Gates conceded that boosting interoperability—the capability of technologies made by different vendors to work together—remains one of the biggest challenges in the software sector today. Gates noted that although the IT industry has adopted a number of strategies over the years to help tackle the issue of integrating products from multiple vendors, making a wholesale commitment to interoperability will be the only way for companies to make customers' lives easier.
As a result, IT providers, including Microsoft, must work to make different applications and systems "do what they do best," while consenting to observe a "common contract" that allows disparate systems to better communicate and exchange data with one another, Gates said in the statement.
"Our goal is to harness all the power inherent in modern (and not so modern) business software, and enable them to work together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," Gates said. "We want to further eliminate friction among heterogeneous architectures and applications without compromising their distinctive underlying capabilities."
Gates pointed to the Internet as one area of technology where interoperability has made great strides, as nearly any piece of Web-based software can work with many other applications, as long as it adheres to certain protocols.
Not surprisingly, he also used the statement, which Microsoft dubs an "executive e-mail," to tout Microsoft's own applications as a good fit for businesses that are keen on interoperability. "Our software works with a vast array of technologies in the marketplace, whether they shipped last week or decades ago," he wrote, listing technologies from mainframes to the Mac OS, NetWare to Java, Oracle's databases to SAP's business software.
Gates cited in particular Microsoft's efforts with Web services based on XML (Extensible Markup Language). Gates said XML will allow companies to pursue a strategy of "interoperability by design" across many different kinds of software—and he highlighted the language's key role in Office 2003 and the Office System product line.
"First, by supporting data in XML, customers can easily unlock information in existing systems and act upon it in familiar Office applications," he wrote. "Second, information created within Office can be easily used by other business applications."
Microsoft's co-founder also used the statement to espouse what he says are the major differences between his company's efforts toward interoperability and the work being done by the open-source software community. Gates said that while some people confuse the goals of the two concepts as similar, he believes open-source applications aren't necessarily designed to work well together.
"Open source is a methodology for licensing and developing software that may or may not be interoperable," Gates said. "Additionally, the open-source development approach encourages the creation of many permutations of the same type of software application, which could add implementation and testing overhead to interoperability efforts."
Industry watchers observed that Microsoft has made advances in encouraging interoperability both through the design of its products and its partnering relationships but that the company can do much more to help ease IT systems management for its customers.
David Smith, an analyst with market research company Gartner, said Microsoft has done more than just talk about interoperability. He predicted the company will rely heavily on Web services as a vehicle for easing future software integration headaches.
"I would say that they've done more than just give lip service to the idea of interoperability," Smith said. "They'll continue to work on it where it doesn't threaten product revenues, but there has been some improvement over the years."
Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC, said Microsoft will need to continue to work more closely with its largest partners in order to exhibit true progress with interoperability. He said the company's vision will likely establish interoperability standards and push other vendors to follow suit.
"I'm still waiting to see more progress result from Microsoft's partnership with Sun," Gillen said. "There's been a lot of talk, but few product specification announcements. Getting Windows to work better with Unix technologies is one area where you could imagine some real improvement."
Gates frequently uses his "executive e-mails" to help steer Microsoft's strategy in public. Most recently, he used the medium to detail the company's progress with improving security issues in its products.