In a conference call this afternoon Microsoft outlined a sweeping change to the way it does business. The corporation vowed to “increase the openness of its products and drive greater interoperability” in a move surely designed to allay future criticism of its business practices.

The announcement cover a huge amount of information including all the company’s APIs and protocols for major software such as Windows Vista, Office 2007 and Windows Server 2008. The move will make it easier for those who use Microsoft products to retain hold of their information and even move it to rival products if they wish.

As an immediate next step, Microsoft will openly publish over 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously only available under a special trade secret license. Now they will be available for free online.

Important steps, significant changes

“These steps represent an important step and significant change in how we share information about our products and technologies,” said Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer of the announcement.

“For the past 33 years, we have shared a lot of information with hundreds of thousands of partners around the world and helped build the industry, but today’s announcement represents a significant expansion toward even greater transparency,” he added.

Different default formats for Office 2007

Of course, Microsoft’s openness has long been a point of debate – and not just during the corporation’s epic anti-trust struggles. By publishing its API and protocol documentation online, third-party developers will be able to make their software “connect to Microsoft’s high-volume products [like Windows] just as Microsoft’s other products do.” Microsoft also made clear Office 2007 would also be opened up for developers to plug in additional document formats “and enable users to set these formats as their default for saving documents.”

The corporation has also pledged it will not sue open source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of its protocols, while those who do want to use patented material in products will now be able to acquire a license to do so. Microsoft also pledged it would be more open about how it “supports industry standards and extensions.”

“Together, these principles significantly change the way we share information about our technologies and products,” adds Bob Muglia, Senior Vice President, Server and Tools Business who also took part in a Q&A on the subject. “These changes help increase choice and opportunity for developers, partners, customers and competitors, which is one of our top long-term goals.”

Microsoft made reference to the move being a reaction to its long-running anti-trust scuffles with the European Commission. It said the announcement “reflect[ed] the changed legal landscape for Microsoft and the IT industry.”