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Opening Microsoft's Knowledge Vault

Microsoft announced a pilot program Wednesday that will let partners add to its official Knowledge Base for the first time.

The announcement made during the Redmond, Wash.-based software vendor's Valuable Professional (MVP) Summit this week, along with three other recent moves, may be designed to add some community panache to the legendarily tight-lipped face Redmond turns to the outside world.

Called the "Community Solutions Content Program for Microsoft Knowledge Base," the inaugural program allows the company's certified MVPs to add content to the company's database of technical and how-to articles that fuels its online customer support system.

The company also showed off new feedback, assistance and community tools designed to let MVPs give feedback during the product development cycle. MVPs will be able to submit and vote on features and suggest products. Microsoft will funnel the feedback to the pertinent teams, which then may respond to the suggestions that get the most votes. The feedback channel, part of a joint project between the Office division, CDDG, Windows Client division and PSS, is planned to go live this summer. The Content Program is just one of several more "open" stances that Microsoft is apparently taking.

On Monday, it released the source code for its Windows Installer XML (WiX), a toolset to build Windows installation packages from XML source code, under the Common Public License -- and posted it on SourceForge, the world's largest open-source software development repository.

On Wednesday, Microsoft launched Channel 9, a blog on steroids that -- in some cases literally -- opens up the development process to anyone who wants to peep. A team of Microsoft evangelists manages a multimedia collage of video interviews, blog entries, RSS feeds, wikis and discussion forums, in an attempt to create dialog with outside developers.

So is Microsoft trying to change its spots and move toward a more open source-ish mode of interacting with the outside? While it remains highly protective of its intellectual property, said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox, "Microsoft now recognizes that [outside] developers want to participate more in the development of its products." While Redmond is definitely responding to pressure from open source, he said, "The amount of access has been limited, as has the amount of feedback." Jupiter Research is owned by the parent company of this Web site.

The new communication channels and participation in writing Knowledge Base content will remain open only to MVPs, he pointed out. "The company always has rewarded loyalty. If you're loyal, you get information and access and support that others don't. All Windows developers have always had it a little better than everyone else."

The new openness will benefit Microsoft, Wilcox thinks, because the dialog, albeit limited to true believers, could make its products better. But he doesn't think Microsoft is really trying to change its spots. "This cat," he said, "is the same."