FUD on the Formats

True to form, Microsoft is spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about the standards process, the decision by Massachusetts to move away from Microsoft Office, and the nature of “open” standards with respect to file formats. The spread of FUD is designed to stall efforts to standardize on a more open format.

Microsoft is on the offensive to combat the spread of the XML-based file format standard known as the OpenDocument Format (ODF). It’s one-two punch was to move politically to stop the revolution in Massachusetts, and then to announce that it was promoting its own Office 12 XML format as a standard. Much of the computer press went along with Microsoft’s spin that it was “opening up” the formats, but the details point instead to a pseudo-standard controlled by one entity — Microsoft.

As I wrote in Massachusetts Dumps Office in Boston Harbor, the state decided to phase out Microsoft Office in favor of applications based on open standards, including the OpenDocument format used by OpenOffice.org and other applications. Since then, Microsoft claimed it never had a chance in the state’s legislative process (see David Berlind’s excellent report in his ZDNet blog, Microsoft’s claims of foul play in Massachusetts don’t hold up). The company wrote a 15-page response to Massachusetts, copied to Gov. Mitt Romney, that said that the recommendation by the state’s Information Technology Division “prevents impacted state agencies of the Commonwealth from using many critical and well-established technologies but also runs afoul of well-established procurement norms without due consideration for the enormous costs and technical challenges that stem from the proposal.” Microsoft also worked behind the scenes to push an amendment in the Massachusetts Senate to remove policy authority from Information Technology Division.

Then on Nov. 21, Microsoft announced that it would offer the Word, Excel and PowerPoint document formats in Office 12 as open standards (curiously, Microsoft did not include other components of Office, such as its database format). The creation of a fully documented standard derived from the formats, called Microsoft Office Open XML, will likely take about a year, according to Microsoft. Microsoft is submitting the format to the European standards body ECMA International (ECMA is a Geneva-based standards organization which issues standards and recommendations).

While Microsoft wraps its public announcement in the mantle of “openness” the formats submitted are not open. Microsoft doesn’t relinquish control of the Office formats to other companies. All Microsoft is promising to do is provide information about the formats and not sue anyone for using them (see Microsoft to standardize Office formats by Martin LaMonica in CNet News.com).

As Andy Updegrove wrote in his blog, Microsoft Drops the Other Open Format Shoe, an excellent ongoing analysis of this battle, “If Microsoft is willing to open its formats and to come up with the necessary converters to allow old documents to be upgraded, why not just support ODF?” In fact, Microsoft could avoided the legal battle in Massachusetts if the company had taken its earlier recommendation and supported ODF in Office.

Updegrove also provides a nice summary, in his blog entry Microsoft’s Format Covenant Fails Comparison Test with Sun’s, of the problems that may occur with Microsoft’s submission of this supposedly “open” standard to the standards body:

Thus, until ECMA adopts the formats as a standard, Microsoft can do whatever it wishes, and implementers would need to follow, in order to maintain current compatibility, even if the formats go in a direction they don’t like. Nor will they have advance warning, presumably, of such a change. Or, Microsoft could add new functionalities to its own Office products that lie outside the current formats, and not include them in the covenant, giving it an advantage over competitors.

Massachusetts is not the only government entity asking Microsoft to standardize its formats. The issue has come up at series of meetings between company executives and European Union government officials, which is why Microsoft chose to introduce the proposed standards to European standards bodies.

Essentially Microsoft is pulling an end-run around the OpenDocument movement, which is supported by a host of rivals including IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc., Novell Inc., Red Hat Inc., Google Inc., Apple Computer Inc. and Intel Corp. Some of these companies (notably Apple and Intel) also support Microsoft’s position, essentially playing both sides of this argument because they can’t lose.

In a ComputerWorld report, Update: Microsoft to open Office document format by Elizabeth Montalbano and Simon Taylor, Louis Suarez-Potts, a key supporter of OpenDocument and steward of OpenOffice, summarized the difference between an true open standard and what Microsoft is proposing:

Companies can take a look at ISO standards, but they can’t use them to build their own applications, said Suarez-Potts… “With an open standard, any application can use it,” he said. “With an ISO standard, it’s not quite the same thing. It just means you have a reference for it.”

Microsoft’s strategy is to confuse the public by obfuscating the details involved in the standards process and in legislative actions, and by claiming its move will “open” these file formats. We’re all supposed to wait another year while Microsoft finishes Office. The company could have supported OpenDocument in order to remain competitive with OpenOffice.org and other Office rivals, but instead, Microsoft is maintaining its monopoly position with Office by sticking with its own formats.

How will this affect you? As you move your documents into future systems, you may want to rid yourself of Microsoft formats that lock you into using Office. At this point it seems that the OpenDocument standard is the only truly open standard that is guaranteed to work with other applications.

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FUD on the Formats — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Vulturo On Technology » Microsoft Doesn’t Like Open Standards

  2. Pingback: Get Off Microsoft » Blog Archive » Microsoft’s Future of Uncertainty and Doubt

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