Microsoft, for so long regarded by some as the bad boy of the computer industry, has surprised many with the announcement that it is to make far-reaching changes to its technology and increase the openness of its products.

In a major policy announcement, Redmond says it is planning on implementing four new interoperability principles and corresponding actions across its high-volume business products. These include “ensuring open connections; promoting data portability; enhancing support for industry standards; and fostering more open engagement with customers and the industry, including open source communities.”

"These steps represent an important step and significant change in how we share information about our products and technologies," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. "...but today's announcement represents a significant expansion toward even greater transparency. Our goal is to promote greater interoperability, opportunity and choice for customers and developers throughout the industry by making our products more open and by sharing even more information about our technologies."

"Customers need all their vendors, including and especially Microsoft, to deliver software and services that are flexible enough such that any developer can use their open interfaces and data to effectively integrate applications or to compose entirely new solutions," said Ray Ozzie, Microsoft chief software architect. "By increasing the openness of our products, we will provide developers additional opportunity to innovate and deliver value for customers."

The interoperability principles and actions announced apply to most of Microsoft’s frontline products, including Vista (including the .NET Framework), as well as Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, Office 2007, Exchange Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007, and future versions of all these products.

Microsoft says it will specifically ensure open connections to its high-volume products, by publishing on its website documentation for all application programming interfaces (APIs) and communications protocols. Developers do not need to take a license or pay a royalty or other fee to access this information.

"Starting today Microsoft will also openly publish on MSDN over 30,000 pages of documentation for Windows client and server protocols that were previously available only under a trade secret license through the Microsoft Work Group Server Protocol Program (WSPP) and the Microsoft Communication Protocol Program (MCPP). Protocol documentation for additional products, such as Office 2007 and all of the other high-volume products covered by these principles, will be published in the upcoming months."

Microsoft said it would also indicate which protocols are covered by Microsoft patents and will license all of these patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms, at low royalty rates.

And Microsoft is also revealed that it is providing a covenant not to sue open source developers for development or non-commercial distribution of implementations of these protocols. "These developers will be able to use the documentation for free to develop products. Companies that engage in commercial distribution of these protocol implementations will be able to obtain a patent license from Microsoft, as will enterprises that obtain these implementations from a distributor that does not have such a patent license."

Redmond also said it would support industry standards and extensions, and will document for the development community how it supports such standards.

Office 2007 will be enhanced to provide greater flexibility of document formats. This includes "designing new APIs for the Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office 2007 to enable developers to plug in additional document formats and to enable users to set these formats as their default for saving documents."

Microsoft's full statement can be read here.