More FUD on the Formats: Fooling Everyone Some of the Time

Microsoft’s April Fools joke came four months early, and the governor of Massachusetts, as well as many in the press, fell for it. The governor even issued this statement on Nov. 28: “The commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft’s progress in creating an open document format. If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable open formats.” Microsoft’s shrewd PR move paid off.

To recap, the IT department in Mass. had decided not to include Microsoft Office file formats in its new list of required formats, effectively freezing out Microsoft Office in its future IT plans, and boosting the popularity of the standard XML-based OpenDocument Format (ODF) used by alternatives to Office (such as OpenOffice.org and NeoOffice). Billions are at stake in the decisions of large organizations that need to upgrade to take advantage of XML and get with the “Web 2.0” program. Microsoft-funded lobbyists fought back, but eventually Microsoft decided to pursue a PR strategy of announcing that it would “open” its XML-based formats and submit them to standards bodies. Headlines proclaimed that Microsoft was “opening” its formats.

A lot of readers thought this meant that Microsoft was making nice with its customers, with competitors, and with the open source community. Whatever the press corps were smoking, they didn’t smoke out the core issues.

Then just before Thanksgiving, the press served up another kind of turkey on our news plate: Larry Rosen, well-respected legal expert on open source licensing, supposedly “blessed” Microsoft’s legal terms regarding the formats’ “openness” (as reported by David Berlind of ZDNet):

I don’t see anything we can’t live with. We can participate in crafting the [Microsoft-based] standard in ECMA, we can read and write Office 2003 files in open source applications, and we don’t have to pay royalties to Microsoft to do so. It’s a good start. [From Top open source lawyer blesses new terms on Microsoft’s XML file format by ZDNet’s David Berlind]

This supposed “good start” is truly an exercise in FUD. Berlind paints an unkind scenario of ODF dropping out of sight if Google took Microsoft’s news for granted and decided to support Microsoft’s formats. Where’s the beef? I’ve read developers comments that Microsoft’s XML may be so difficult to debug that, ironically, Office 12 may not even be compliant at first with the “standard” reference that Microsoft publishes. It could take more than a year for all this to settle. Besides, what vendor will drop support of ODF when millions of people now use it? More importantly, what kind of fear, uncertainty, and doubt is spread with this announcement? As Berlind acknowledges,

Although it’s not clear whether or not Microsoft would clamp down on partial implementations of its file formats, the fact that Microsoft is promising not to sue those who fully comply without having a test for that compliance creates a fair amount of uncertainty; uncertainty that involves legal risk (or, maybe some legal loopholes). [From Top open source lawyer blesses new terms on Microsoft’s XML file format by ZDNet’s David Berlind]

Finally, some core issues! The Microsoft formats are by no means “open” as in Open Source software. They are, in fact, part of a crafty scheme to maintain the bind that ties business and government customers to Microsoft Office. This is what Microsoft (and, by reporting it, the mainstream press) calls “open”? At least someone stayed awake long enough while reading the legal stuff to write this coherent explanation:

The “conformance” aspect of Microsoft’s covenant puts its competitors on notice that any attempt to offer a superset of the XML specification which is not compatible with Microsoft products puts them in jeopardy of being sued for non-compliance with the XML schema. In effect, Microsoft is attempting to make sure that its large competitors will not gain an advantage through the use of Microsoft’s own intellectual property. [From What makes Microsoft blink by ZDNet‘s Marc Wagner]

So competitors can support Microsoft’s “open” format but can’t improve on it without risking a lawsuit. They can, on the other hand, improve on ODF. Therein lies an important distinction. Software can be written years from now that will still be able to read today’s ODF documents, and those software vendors can offer improvements to ODF. Those vendors will also be able to read the “standard” Microsoft formats, but not improve on them. Microsoft, of course, will be able to improve on them, and charge for an Office upgrade that takes advantages of those improvements. Nice dough, if you can get it — companies should strive to protect and expand (oh, excuse me, embrace and extend) its market share. Unless that company has a monopolistic share.

The best description of Microsoft’s strategy, regarding non-support for ODF while simultaneously supporting a standard such as PDF, is this one, again by Marc Wagner:

Microsoft comes from a position of strength in rejecting ODF because existing MS Office file formats dominate the desktop space — while ODF is but a blip on the radar. However, Microsoft comes from a position of weakness with regards to PDF because the PDF format dominates the web space — and Microsoft wants to make inroads into that space. Supporting PDF while promoting [Microsoft’s own] XML is not unlike the approach Microsoft took when it introduced MS Word in a WordPerfect-dominated marketplace — it supported WP formats while promoting a transition to Word. [From What makes Microsoft blink by ZDNet‘s Marc Wagner]

Microsoft is not making nice with anyone, really. The company’s decision not to support ODF in Office is a perfect example of what a normal company should do to gain market share, but which a monopoly shouldn’t be allowed to do to dominate a market. I don’t mean Microsoft should be censored or regulated, but that its formats shouldn’t be readily declared as “open standards” when they are in fact proprietary.

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More FUD on the Formats: Fooling Everyone Some of the Time — 2 Comments

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