Could PDF support in Office 12 quell an ODF uprising?

Summary:The Web is all agog and ablog about Microsoft's decision to support Adobe's Portable Document file format (PDF) in the next version of its desktop productivity suite: currently called Office 12 (why not Office Vista since there's an Office XP?).

The Web is all agog and ablog about Microsoft's decision to support Adobe's Portable Document file format (PDF) in the next version of its desktop productivity suite: currently called Office 12 (why not Office Vista since there's an Office XP?).  According to Microsoft, "Office customers will be able to create widely viewable and printable documents directly from within Office applications including Microsoft Office Word, Excel,  PowerPoint, InfoPath, Access, Publisher, Visio, OneNote." 

The announcement of support comes during interesting times for Microsoft.  In a fight to the finish that was probably watched by more government organizations than Microsoft would probably care  to know about, the Redmond-based company's Office productivity suite was indirectly bounced from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' list of approved products for the 173 state agencies that employed some 80,000 people.  Massachusetts didn't de-list Office per se.  They instituted a policy that requires public documents to be stored and/or exchanged in one of two file formats --  the OASIS-backed OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Adobe's PDF.  Since MS-Office support neither, it was effectively bumped from Massachusetts' list of approved products. In true government fashion,  not only did the decision affect all state agencies and employees, but the many thousands of contractors that do business with the Commonwealth as well.  

Universal, long term, "tax free" access to public documents was an important goal that led to the Massachusetts decision.  Tax-free means that no one is forced to pay a technology tax (for example, a royalty to Microsoft) to read or write a public document.  Based on their own definition of "open," state officials were concerned that Microsoft's file formats were too closed to make that goal possible.  In an attempt to alert ODF-interested organizations to the complexities of intellectual property law, Microsoft publicly questioned whether ODF was as open as advocates claimed it to be.  But, in a Kung Fu like move that uses your opponent's momentum against him, Sun sidestepped Microsoft's kick to the groin, grabbed the foot on its upswing, and helped it to complete its path right intoMicrosoft's mouth (with a broad, if not revolutionary patent grant).  Incidentally, in an email that was distributed to the press earlier today, Microsoft described its own XML file formats as being "open" ("Open XML Formats" was the exact terminology).  Drawing the whole "defining open" discussion into the spotlight, Massachusetts clearly doesn't see it that way.  Neither do I.

Given how thorough Massachusetts officials were in their diligence, there's no doubt in my mind that they took note of two public access debacles that recently came to light.   One had to do with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to Hurricane Katrina; the other with the US Copyright Office.  Give the public nature of and accessibility to Massachusetts' deliberations on the matter, I posited that the Commonwealth had created the equivalent of an on-line software wizard that will make it easy for other organizations to follow suite.  Just cut, paste, and do some search and replaces.  There isn't much else left to do except wait for Sun, IBM and others to race to fill the ODF solution void.

In my blog about those debacles, I predicted that Microsoft would probably be forced to support ODF and that it would introduce that support in Office 12.  I was three-fourths correct.  While I was right that Microsoft would have to announce support for a Massachusetts-endorsed format, I was wrong in picking ODF.  While "nothing's over until over till the fat lady sings," Microsoft has now decided to support PDF.   But I was spot on in my prediction that users would have to buy or upgrade to Office 12.

Much the same way that I felt as though Microsoft has made some mistakes during Massachusetts' deliberations, including sending the wrong guy to the last hearing in Massachusetts, this very shrewd move on Microsoft's behalf could be a mistake.  The move is shrewd because Microsoft knows that many governments already make heavy use of the PDF file format.  So, for any government organization that was thinking about following in Massachusetts footsteps, the PDF announcement by Microsoft will certainly be cause for pause.  Even Massachusetts will have some tough upgrade vs. replace decisions ahead of itself now that Microsoft will support PDF (and as long as that support involves no technical compromise when compared to its own proprietary formats or ODF). 

But the upgrade requirement (confirmed today via phone) to Office 12  -- a product that Microsoft by its own admission says will work better if it's running on Vista -- was an unnecessary poke that further tarnishes Microsoft's image as a technology partner who is looking out for its customers' best interests, rather than an adversary.  That same support could have been added to Office XP with a service pack.  Why not throw current customers such bone? 

By forcing customers to upgrade, it sure feels like we're being kept on the same software upgrade train that has sustained the Windows/Office franchise so far and that Microsoft appears wholeheartedly committed to from a business model perspective.  This could also be a turn-off to customers -- and there are many of them -- who will happily revisit the idea of something a bit more svelte than Windows and Office (note, even Michael Dell is saying that PCs will have to fatten up for Windows Vista). Now, as fellow ZDNet blogger Richard MacManus says, couldn't be a better time for something on the lightweight side.  Not only are there numerous options already available (also see Zimbra leads path to AJAXed apps),  if there ever was a time for Microsoft's Windows/Office grip to be broken, now, with both products going through an upgrade, with software as a service outfits (SaaS) like Salesforce.com proving how headache free yet robust browser-based apps can be, and with companies like IBM, Sun, and others finally bringing significant resources to bear (note Sun has something cooking with AJAX-specialist Google) on the thin-client front, may be the time. Dan Gillmor disagrees, but the thin client fire is blazing to brightly for something extremely hot not to come out of it.

But just like with the ODF/PDF situation, never ever count Microsoft out. When the heat is on, it can and will respond. For starters, as was proven before when the Internet first posed a threat to the Redmond-based company, Microsoft is at it's very best when a disruptive technology is applying significant pressure (although that last time around, it didn't have to give up on its primary business model).  Although it's very different than your typical browser/SaaS-based architecture, the company has its own thin client architecture (the Windows Terminal technology) thereby making Microsoft no stranger to such platforms. Also, with Outlook Web Access, Microsoft was one of the first to take AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript and XML) mainstream.  There's no reason that, one or two years from now, we can't see a reinvented Microsoft with a soup to nuts thin client platform that's just as compelling, if not more-so to some, than anything else that's available. 

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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