In a public e-mail released earlier this month, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer promised the software giant would henceforth act like a responsible corporate citizen and play by a new set of rules indicative of its place as an industry leader.

“As CEO, I can personally assure you that Microsoft will commit all the time, energy and resources necessary to follow through on our responsibilities,” Ballmer wrote in the e-mail, which can be found online at “We have learned a great deal from our experiences of these past few years, in particular about our responsibilities as an industry leader…We recognize that we need to support industry cooperation in new and creative ways.”

If the company does follow through on Ballmer’s assurances to play nice, then there’s hope yet for users contending with competing standards and interoperability issues. Microsoft has already taken a few steps in the right direction. But as with most things, it’s a case of a few steps forward and a few steps back.

Microsoft is learning (or being forced to learn) that it must cooperate with other vendors in the industry. Bill Gates recently pledged that Visual C++ .Net will become more compliant with ISO/ANSI (International Organization for Standardization/American National Standards Institute) standards than ever before, promising that C++ .Net will have a 98 per cent degree of conformity with the ISO C++ standard.

The Web Services Interoperability Organization, of which Microsoft is a founding member, finally invited Sun Microsystems to sit on the organization’s board. And the companies are now working together to create open standards for Web services. As Ballmer wrote in his e-mail, the company is working with others in the industry to create XML-based standards.

Last year Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates promised that the company would clean up its act with regard to its security measures (or embarrassing lack thereof). This was a welcome and much needed move – one that should have been made long ago. And if Microsoft does manage to improve its software quality, maybe users, who have become accustomed to poorly-performing software, will start demanding more of vendors.

These moves are a good start. But Microsoft still has a ways to go, and users need to make sure that Microsoft keeps its promise to be a good corporate citizen.

The Licensing 6.0 and Software Assurance programs were definitely a giant step backward. The new License 6.0 program required users to have upgrade rights to current software, and the Software Assurance program replaces all of Microsoft’s current upgrade programs. To sign up for Software Assurance, users must be on the most current version of software and pay a fee equal to 29 per cent of the full retail licence for applications and 25 per cent for servers. The program forces users to pay for upgrades that they may neither want, need nor be ready for.

Another step back came in October when Microsoft admitted that its Office 11 suite, which is currently in beta testing, will only run on the Windows XP and Windows 2000 systems. Citing security and compatibility issues, the company has decided the new suite will not run on Windows 95, 98, 98 Special Edition, NT or ME. While one might forgive Microsoft for dropping support for Windows 95, many companies are still based on NT and Windows ME is still a relatively new product, even by the IT industry’s standards. Those who bought it should have been forewarned that Microsoft didn’t think enough of it to continue building office suites for it.

While Microsoft has given some ground and started acting more fairly towards its competitors, it still acts as if it can bully its customers into upgrading on its terms, not theirs. Users need to make their voices heard – if enough of them speak out, the vendor will have no choice but to listen.