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Of bridges and Office 2007 user interfaces

To Mike Gunderloy, the Office 2007 UI license seems to say Microsoft assumes all control over Office UI innovations. It's like claiming ownership of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it's a scary though for the future of development, he says.

"Buying the Brooklyn Bridge" has long been a metaphor for the gullible buyer in American culture. We all laugh at the newly arrived immigrant who is so naive that he will invest his money is something that the seller clearly does not own in the first place.

Yet I'm beginning to wonder whether Microsoft has seized upon this business model with the institution of the Office UI Licensing program. It really seems to me that they are selling -- or at least claiming to own -- something to which they have at best dubious rights. Worse, at least from my personal point of view, I think if this claim stands up it will end up making it much harder for me to make a living as a software developer in the long run.

I'm unhappy enough, in fact, that I have no intention of using the Office 2007 user interface in any of my own applications.
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Facts before polemics. In late November Microsoft announced a royalty-free licensing agreement "that will enable developers to build applications that have the look and feel of the new 2007 Office system applications." They went to great lenghts to point out that Microsoft is not licensing code, but "its intellectual property rights in the UI (which cover both design and functionality)." Sign up for the program, agree to follow the 120 pages of guidelines, and you can build an application that looks like Office 2007.

Microsoft claims that the program is open to practically anyone who's not trying to compete directly with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, or Access. But that's clearly too strong a statement -- if you actually go look at the license terms, they're on their face incompatible with the GPL, which means that the vast majority of open source projects are barred from the new license.

But that's not what has me seeing red over this development. It's this whole notion -- put forth by Jensen Harris, from the Office UI team, and endorsed by several ISVs -- that Microsoft's investment in designing a new UI gives them the right to control the use of that UI by every developer everywhere for all time that bothers me.

Others have dug into the legal issues surrounding the Microsoft license; it's not yet clear, for example, whether it is based on a copyright claim, a patent claim or sheer bullying. It may well be that there is no enforceable claim here at all (though Microsoft has a lot of high-priced legal talent at their beck and call; I wouldn't put it past them to sue some control vendor who hasn't signed the agreement just to try and get a precedent on the books). What I want to do is to go beyond the legalities to consider what sort of world we'll end up in if this becomes common practice.

Suppose that we as developers agree that it is right and proper that the developer or organization who first comes up with a user interface innovation can control the use of that innovation, period. They can license it to others or keep it for themselves; they can give the licenses away or charge for them. A plain reading of Microsoft's actions in the case of the new Office user interface seems to indicate that they believe this is the way things do (or should?) work.

What would that mean for all of us? I think the answer is that it ends up being a world where constructing a user interface for any non-trivial application is much harder than it is today -- because you have to worry about licensing every single piece of it from someone.

More from Mike Gunderloy
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What's worse, you'll have to either spend time doing research to make sure you're not inadvertently using someone else's user interface intellectual property, or stick to pieces you've already purchased, or take your chances on being sued. This is going to slow down the pace of innovation considerably. The end result is to impoverish us all as developers.

Do you want to live in that world? I don't. I'm glad we haven't lived in it so far. I'm unhappy that Microsoft -- who has benefited immensely from the user interface innovations of other companies over the past decades, including everything from windowing systems to tabbed Web browsing -- is trying to push us to that world. I'm unhappy enough, in fact, that I have no intention of using the Office 2007 user interface in any of my own applications, or encouraging anyone else to do so. And I'm seriously looking for opportunities to replace Microsoft applications on my network with alternatives from companies that do not have this attitude, and pursuing work outside of the Microsoft universe, even though that means not getting top dollar for my time.

One developer may not make a difference, but if enough developers vote with their keyboards, perhaps these shenanigans will eventually come to an end.

Mike Gunderloy is a consultant in Washington state. You can read more of Mike's work at his Larkware Web site, or contact him at MikeG1@larkfarm.com.

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