Carr gives Microsoft a taste of its own OpenDoc medicine (and I pile on)

Summary:Nicholas Carr, the Harvard Business School professor who posited that IT doesn't matter in his book Does IT Matter?, has, in his most recent blog, sided with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in its decision to    phase out office applications from Microsoft and other providers in favor of those based on open standards, including the recently approved OpenDocument standard.

Nicholas Carr, the Harvard Business School professor who posited that IT doesn't matter in his book Does IT Matter?, has, in his most recent blog, sided with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in its decision to    phase out office applications from Microsoft and other providers in favor of those based on open standards, including the recently approved OpenDocument standard.   In "penning" that blog, Carr was essentially responding to Microsoft's 15-page reply to the Commonwealth's draft policy.  The most noteworthy part of Carr's blog comes about three quarters of the way through when he says:

...when Microsoft points out the difficulties inherent in translating existing documents in a variety of incompatible, proprietary formats into a single open format, it is inadvertently backing up the state's argument. The only way to guarantee that the state's document archive will be accessible in the future is to move to a common standard today. If translating all those documents will be hard now, as it no doubt will be, imagine how much harder it would be if the state put the job off for another decade or two. The status quo is the problem the state has to solve; it is not a solution to the problem.

If you've followed my long term advocacy of open standards (OK, not just advocacy...I routinely urge readers to move to open standard-based alternatives wherever possible), then you'd intuit that I'm in complete agreement with Mr. Carr on this point.  With two extra sentences however, Carr could have really driven the nail in the coffin.  Mr. Carr... here they are.. feel free to remix:

Ironically, in the same breath that Microsoft is using cost and other reasons to dissuade the Commonwealth from attempting to move to a new and different document format, just about every user of Microsoft Office must do that anyway in order to support Microsoft's new XML formats.

Case closed.

Not only should more public agencies heed Massachusetts' OpenDoc policy, all businesses and organizations should.  If Microsoft is so confident that its royalty-free but non-open XML-based document formats are that much better for its customers, then it should support both OpenDoc as well as its own in Microsoft Office. 

In other words, if they're so good, what does Microsoft have to lose by supporting both?  Well, how about Windows' domination, for starters?  One important key to Windows' domination of the industry is Microsoft  Office's inextricable link to it.  If you need Office because of the formats it supports, then you need Windows too (Office can't run without Windows).  Microsoft might argue that the two aren't quite so tied.   But allow me to direct your attention to Exhibit A: ComputerWorld's interview with Microsoft platforms group vice president Jim Allchin.  In that inteview, Allchin says:

If you have a corporation [that's] thinking about a redeployment and sees great value in things like Office, we think the combination of Office and Vista together for a deployment might make great sense for a knowledge worker. Both are independent, but in terms of an actual deployment, it might be simpler to roll it together in terms of the deployment.

This is the softball pitch.  In it, Allchin is gently advising that businesses migrate to both the new version of Office as well as the new version of Windows (now called Windows Vista).  But he's careful -- as he must be -- in saying that in order to get the most out of the former that you'd need the latter.  After a couple of decades of being bullied into upgrading by software vendors, the market has no tolerance for such behavior any more.  Particularly when a legitimate open alternative exists.  But, later, in another interview (let's call this Exhibit B) with NetworkWorld, Allchin may have slipped and the other shoe might have dropped. 

But oftentimes they decide to do a deployment where they are mapping together operating system and a productivity capability and maybe a line of business apps that they make as a drop and then roll that out. So a certain number of customers will take advantage of the fact they are going to do a refresh, and they will pick up everything, and that is what they will roll out. Vista runs independently of Office. Office can run down level and if you put the two together you get some advantages. But if you are going to update them, why not do them together?

Some advantages?

There are a lot of ways to read into what Allchin said.  But the one that stands out to me is that to get the most out of the new version of Office, you will need the new version of Windows as well.  On the other hand, if you're testing Vista as I am and begin to see some of its technical advantages over its predecessors, you could make the argument that there will be some advantages when deploying any application with Vista. 

I wrote to Microsoft on Thursday (9/15) to get an explanation of what those advantages might be and have yet to hear back [Update: Microsoft has responded]. But for organizations like the Commonwealth that are considering OpenDoc advocacy as well as Microsoft's largely cost-based argument against it, one can't help but wonder if cost isn't more of a rotten leg to stand on than it already is (it's not like there's zero cost involved in migrating to Microsoft's new XML formats). 

More importantly, going back to the question of what Microsoft has to lose, if getting the most out of Office means upgrading to Vista, it's that Windows-Office tie and the fortunes that go with it that potentially gets broken when an organization moves to OpenDoc.  By not supporting OpenDoc, Microsoft is giving the Commonwealth and others like it no choice but to migrate to another set of productivity applications.  Sun's StarOffice is currently the leading candidate for organizations that want OpenDoc-compliant software with the backing and support of a reputable vendor (Infoworld just said some nice things about the new version due to ship next week).  For those willing to turn to third party open source specialists or who are willing to be more self-reliant, StarOffice's less functional but open source-based kissing cousin OpenOffice.org (OO.o) runs a close second. 

But the dark horse longshot that nobody so far has given much thought to is the other big backer (in addition to Sun) of OpenDoc at OASIS -- IBM.   Any oddsmakers in this race must consider three important questions and one fact.  First, why, with no virtually no presence in the productivity app suite market, would IBM get behind OpenDoc at OASIS? Second, why did IBM participate in Massachusetts' deliberations over the adoption of OpenDoc?  Third, why have IBM's standard bearers Bob Sutor and Tom Glover been like white on rice when it comes to their coverage of the Mass/OpenDoc situation? Fact: Pick any front: Servers, Internet, or client architectures: IBM has it sights squarely on Microsoft. Trust me, this interest in OpenDoc isn't casual. 

I'll hopefully get to another blog entry about what IBM is up to soon.  Although it could have something to do with IBM's WorkPlace family of products, I could not glean any clues in Sutor's letter to the Commonwealth.  But, to put it bluntly, IBM would never invest this sort of time in OpenDoc and then cede the opportunity it helped create to its OpenDoc co-sponsor Sun. 

Meanwhile, regardless of what the primary alternatives are -- StarOffice, OO.o, or something from IBM -- all of them do or will pave the way for end users to take the next logical step should they want to -- which is to ditch Windows altogether.   It's no wonder Microsoft isn't a big fan of OpenDoc.

Finally, one last point about Carr's bit of dot-connecting that lead him to discuss Microsoft's inadvertent backing of the Commonwealth's argument rather than its own.  In writing that blog, one could argue that Carr himself has now swung to the "other side" in favor of IT actually mattering.  In the Commonwealth's case, these are IT decisions being made with the involvement IT personnel.  In arguing that the "only way to guarantee that the state's document archive will be accessible in the future is to move to a common standard today," it's virtually impossible to also argue that IT does not matter in the same breath.  This decision clearly matters in more ways than one and probably in ways that we haven't yet begun to appreciate. 

Topics: Microsoft

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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