Microsoft is increasing the openness of its software to appease antitrust regulators and please businesses trending toward more diverse computer systems.

Microsoft said Thursday it is making "broad-reaching changes" to its technology and business practices to enhance the ease with which its software interacts with partners, customers and competitors.

"These steps represent an important step and significant change in how we share information about our products and technologies," said Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

"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."

The US software giant has been gradually shedding its historically protective mindset regarding intellectual property as Microsoft veterans retire and new blood is hired, according to Silicon Valley analyst Rob Enderle.

"There has been an incremental shift in Microsoft's internal thinking that was given a significant jolt by the European Union," Enderle told AFP.

"The underpinnings for the decision are continued frustration with trying to find ways to keep the EU happy and more pressure from customers."

Microsoft's newly announced principles apply to all its top-selling software and fit a patent framework addressed by European courts, said Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith.

"Microsoft is taking all necessary steps to make sure we are in full compliance with European law," Smith said in a conference call.

"The interoperability announcement represents the changed legal landscape for Microsoft and the technology industry."

EU competition regulators responded with a skeptical statement that "takes note" of Microsoft's "intention" to improve the compatibility of its software with rival products, but still voiced antitrust concerns.

"This announcement does not relate to the question of whether or not Microsoft has been complying with EU antitrust rules in this area in the past," the European Commission said.

The commission has long accused Microsoft of abusing its dominant market power by making software that is incompatible with products made by its rivals.

EU regulators slapped a fine of nearly 500 million euros (741 million US dollars) on Microsoft in 2004 for abusing its dominant market power.

A new European Commissions investigation targets the interoperability of a broad range of software, including Microsoft's popular Office package, with rival products.

Microsoft posted more than 30,000 pages of previously safeguarded software protocol information online for anyone to view.

"Today's step is certainly qualitatively and quantitatively different from any step that we as a company have taken in the past," he said.

"We realize it is committing the company not just to mere words, but to actions that will live up to these principles completely."

Microsoft said it would post thousands of additional pages of software protocols on its website in coming weeks.

The protocols, previously only available for fees, show software engineers how to enable applications to communicate and exchange data with popular Microsoft programs such as Outlook and Office.

A test of Microsoft's move will be whether developers can mine useful nuggets from the mountain of information, said analyst Michael Cherry of private firm Directions on Microsoft.

"If we really wanted to sit down today and do something, how long would it take us? And if we have problems, who do we ask?" Cherry said.

Microsoft's senior vice president of server and tools business, Bob Muglia, told AFP to expect the firm's software to be increasingly molded to work with other companies' products.

"These announcements are like McDonald's releasing the recipe for its secret sauce," said AR Communications strategic consultant Carmi Levy.

"This announcement signals that Microsoft is finally ready to commit to an entirely new business model. This is a radical shift from Microsoft's traditional bull-in-a-china-shop strategy."

Microsoft said its new principles include ensuring open connections, promoting data portability, and fostering closer ties with the open-source community.

Open-source applications consist of software considered public property and freely available for people to use and modify.

People will be able to freely customize programs to work with Microsoft software, but if they sell applications for others to use, Microsoft will extract fees, according to Ballmer.