Yes, Microsoft takes Google seriously as a competitor, especially in light of the recent release of the Google Apps office productivity suite. But I keep coming back to Bill Gates's repeated assertion that not Google and not Linux, but rather IBM is Microsoft's most serious competitor. I believe him. Microsoft's business is built around ease of use. The company's stack of OSs and applications has a large customer base that has acquired Microsoft-specific technical skills. IBM's business is built around a services model, with consultants who can deploy and support any systems, no matter how difficult to use they may be. And IBM is out there busily seeding Linux solutions in businesses. If IBM's consultants were able to neutralize Microsoft's competitive advantage of relying on an established industrywide Windows-based skill set, Microsoft could end up watching its business dwindle.

This idea of IBM's potential threat to Microsoft's dominance came to mind during a conversation about Microsoft's reinvigorated commitment to interoperability. I was talking with Jean Paoli, Microsoft's general manager of Interoperability and XML Architecture. Jean emphasized the company's focus on a structured approach to supporting mixed environments. One passing statement of Jean's stuck in my head. He said, "Microsoft delivers interoperability by design, building bridges to competitors and partners—by design, as opposed to having a lot of consulting services coming in and connecting the different systems."

I added the emphasis in the last phrase because I believe it's at the heart of Microsoft's interoperability strategy, as well as its overall strategy as a company. (For example, this approach echoes the point of the Dynamic Systems Initiative—DSI—a companywide priority for making Microsoft products easy to manage by leveraging IT knowledge.) So what is this new structured approach to provide interoperability by design?

Connect People, Data, Diverse Systems
Jean told me that Microsoft's customers consider interoperability, which he defined as "connecting people, data, and diverse systems," to be as important as security and privacy. To address interoperability's importance, Microsoft's new structured approach revolves around four "tool sets."

Product. Jean described this tool set as making sure that "the way we build products incorporates the interoperability dimension." ("Interoperability dimension" refers to all Microsoft interoperability functionality.)

Community. Jean said this tool set is about "how we work with partners, competitors, and customers" to build those bridges to competitors and partners. An example is the Interoperability Customer Executive Council, which has the purpose of understanding "the core scenarios that customers care about." When I asked about Microsoft's agreement with Novell, Jean said, "In October 2006 we announced the Interop Vendor Alliance, a global, cross-industry group of software and hardware vendors that work together to identify opportunities for enhancing interoperability with Microsoft systems on behalf of their customers. This is a way for Microsoft to work with companies like Novell. Red Hat just joined. We now have almost fifty partners."

Access. Jean said this tool set allows partners, competitors, and customers to use "some intellectual property and some technologies that Microsoft created" to enable interoperability in their technologies and connect to Microsoft's solutions. An example is the Open XML Translator project, to "create tools to build a technical bridge between the Office Open XML formats and the OpenDocument Format (ODF)." Jean said, "This is very practical because we know some governments in the world require interoperability here."

Standards. This tool set gives Microsoft a voice in determining which industry technical standards are adopted. By participating in industry standards bodies, Microsoft can help ensure that the company's products are viable in markets that require interoperability (e.g., governments). An example is the December 2006 announcement that Ecma International approved the Office Open XML format as a standard. Jean said, "Novell is implementing this standard in Open Office. With Open XML, we implemented this in Office 2007 (and earlier versions by means of a free update)."

Jean concluded, "What's really important is that we're taking this very structured approach with those four tool sets to go back to basics, understand the practical customer needs, and resolve them."

Building Interop Skills
By designing interoperability into its products as well as its business strategy, Microsoft is providing its customers with new Microsoft skills and reducing the need to call in that army of consultants. Doing the right thing for customers is always a way to improve a company's competitive position. To help you address interoperability and gain some of those skills, we've created a new Web site, http://www.techxworld.com/community/default.aspx. Please contact me or our interoperability editor, Lavon Peters (lpeters@windowsitpro.com), with topic ideas and article submissions.