Of licenses, Microsoft Office, and user interfaces

published Nov 23, 2006, last modified Jun 26, 2013

The latest incarnation of Microsoft Office is a definite improvement over the earlier editions. And the all-new Office User Interface is one of the most discussed changes. So, what's that got to do with free software?

As you will see, quite a bit.

Assuming you don't live under a rock, you probably know both Windows and Office are huge cash cows for Microsoft. These two products fuel most of Microsoft's profits (and, dare I say, failing business units). It's only natural that Microsoft's best interests lie in having the upper hand on those two products.

It doesn't take a pundit to figure out that both products are facing huge competition from Linux and OpenOffice.org.

"Fair game" in user interfaces

In user interfaces for software, the state of affairs is as simple as this: both Microsoft and the free software camp rampantly copy each other's good ideas. We (humanity, and open sourcers in particular) consider this to be a good thing, because good ideas "bubble up", bad ideas "slip through the cracks. In the long run, everyone benefits.

Courts apparently agree with this notion. Apple lost the fight against Microsoft after they unilaterally decided that Microsoft had lifted "intellectual property" in the form of user interface concepts embedded in Windows. Apple wasn't wrong about the blatant copying, but they sure as hell were wrong to try preventing Microsoft from using their ideas.

Changing the notion of "fair game"

Microsoft is trying to change that. Through its Office User Interface Licensing Program, Microsoft is attempting to alter the status quo in their favor. Tacitly embedded under the whole notion is the idea of licensing an idea for use in software. Yes, Microsoft is trying to prevent Apple (and us) from implementing the "new Ctrl+C". Let me quote:

On the other hand, the new Office user interface was a huge investment by Microsoft and the resulting intellectual property belongs to Microsoft.

Please bear with me, as I temporarily disregard the contentious distortion and abuse of the words property and belongs. Let's assume for just a second that the new Office user interface is an improvement from the earlier one (myself being an atheist, God knows it's probably true).

Wouldn't you think, from Microsoft's perspective, that OpenOffice.org (the most fearful enemy they've got on the office automation space) will implement this (or an iterative improvement) ASAP? If I were Microsoft, I would.


So they came up with the licensing idea. Read a document, accept the license, and you've got a royalty-free tutorial on how to implement ("Ctrl+C"?) their user interface. Sounds quite generous, doesn't it?

Except it isn't:

  1. If you abide by the terms of their license, you can't implement the ideas embodied in their guide/specification on any computer program that competes in the office automation space.
  2. The license doesn't extend to third parties. If you want your pet application to exploit parts of the Office user interface experience, your application's users don't get a license to develop your software further.
  3. While I might be smoking crack here, I bet portions of the user interface have been staked out by (you guessed it) software patents. You see, user interfaces can't be protected by copyright, but the algorithms used for them can be patented.

They're doing this under the guise of "wanting to ensure a consistent user experience in relation to the Office UI". Ha! I hate to be lied to, especially to my face. If this were true, they should have started an "Office UI" certification program, not a licensing one. The real reason (which they don't exactly highlight on their promo material) is simple: they're trying to get an unfair edge on free software.

In the long run, we're all worse off

Now, I'm no fortune teller, but here's how I think this new development will pan out in the long run: quite a few ISVs will take the bait. Hence, through their licensing program, Microsoft will institutionalize a new sharing paradigm in the field of user interfaces: don't. Today, user interface improvements are mostly considered "fair game" for free software implementors. Tomorrow, they won't be.

Microsoft is hoping this will be as the long-term outcome, because that gives them (and other large software companies) more leverage in their struggle for divisiveness and against choice. Hey, it's the game, right? Leech as much as possible from the current system ("copy Apple's Ctrl+C"), then change the rules to milk the system some more ("hey, you can't copy our new Ctrl+C").

So what should be the norm?

I'm going to be candid now, and pitch an idea that should be fairly obvious. In the "intellectual property" world of inventions, all that inventors (should) have going on for them is first-mover advantage. You see, good ideas have a way of spreading all by themselves. And the rewards for being the first mover are more than enough for good ideas to pay their inventors off.

Now, before you jump in and say "patents!": I agree with you. Software patents are a surprisingly powerful sledgehammer against innovators.

And that's why they have to die.