Microsoft must drop its Office politics

Microsoft must drop its Office politics

Summary: Microsoft is upset that Massachusetts is mandating industry standard document formats. A simple solution that will satisfy everyone exists

TOPICS: IT Employment

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has decided that all state organisations should use open standards for their documents. Assuming that open standards exist which are capable of supporting the work the state does, this should be an unexceptional decision; accessibility for as broad a range of citizens and organisations as possible is a primary responsibility for any government.

Yet this is far from unexceptional. The open standard chosen, OpenDocument from OASIS, is not supported by Microsoft Office. Moreover, Microsoft says that OpenDocument won't be supported in the upcoming Office 12, which has its own Microsoft Office Open XML standard. In effect, Massachusetts is mandating a state-wide migration away from MS Office.

Microsoft is deeply hurt by this ingratitude. Why not use its open standard, it asks? Why force a downgrade on interoperability and functionality on users, when sticking to the MS way would be so easy and work so well? In return, it is fair to ask whether the MS open standard really is open and can be freely used by anyone without encumbrance. Can it be included in GPL software, for example? Microsoft says it's not for it to comment on other people's licences — a curious stance for a company usually more than ready to talk at length about the legal and practical issues of open development.

Does OpenDocument, which is the result of a lot of hard work from people fully versed in contemporary corporate computing, really fail at the very things it was designed to provide? Microsoft had every chance to contribute to the standard during its development — wasn't that the time for good corporate citizens to raise such issues? And what happened to "the customer is always right"?

Expect these issues to be fully worked over in the near future. But whatever the outcome, Microsoft has a very simple path open to it — it could include OpenDocument compatibility in its software. It won't, for reasons detailed by Brian Jones, a program manager on MS Office. These boil down to 'we do more than you can and you'll never catch up, so why should we let you try?', which either shows a stunning lack of appreciation of how open standards work in the real world, or visceral fear caused by understanding this all too well.

In the end, Microsoft has a simple choice: it either adopts the industry standard or gets locked out. It may not like this — it prefers to use this logic to cow its competitors — but it should have no reason to avoid a level playing field. Quite the opposite; in so doing, it will prove that it doesn't seek to manipulate the market by brute force. All such criticisms removed, attention will fall instead on the quality and value for money propositions in its products — something that any competent company should only encourage. We're certainly open to that.

Topic: IT Employment

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  • Thank you for linking to Brian Jones's blog post in your article, as it helped me realize that your summary of what his post supposedly "boils down to" was quite innacurate and pushing a point of view. Given the number of people depending on Office, I'm glad Microsoft will not be sacrificing existing features while implementing an open format, and Brian even asks people to help them make it easier to write format converters.

    Please take it easy on the Slashdotesque anti-Microsoft reporting.
  • Sigh. Without a true industry standard we all wil be subjected to whatever corporate hidden agenda that's part of the current monopolist. Anyone with a clue will understand that tax payers will not like such extortion lock-ins because they'll end up paying for it all.

    Really, get a clue or simply come out in full and admit that you're payed and bought for (or simply don't know any better). Tax payers would like to know and are actually entitled to know.

    So, which of you advisors out there would like to come out and say: yes, all I did in the last ten years was working with Microsoft products or migrating companies towards Microsoft products. And yes, that's all I really know and I do like driving the Porsche I own. Thank you for sponsering me.

    Because tax payers would really like to know about that. It'll help them to decide who to vote for next.

    Fact is that as long as something isn't truly industry standard (no strings attached) you're locked in. Game over.
  • Industry standard is whatever sells the most which currently means Microsoft
  • Too bad that MS Office formats are a moving target. Imagine: everyone's corporate documents are going to become unreadable some day as soon as MS chooses to drop backwards compatibility with older versions of Office. And there's nothing that anyone can do except upgrade and migrate.

    Still, at least that will keep everyone's I.T. departments busy.
  • Jon, there's a difference between Industry Standard and Vendor Specific. In case of the first the vendor (product) is truly optional. In case of the latter the vendor (product) is almost mandatory.
  • More than an industry standard - an *open* standard is what is needed. One of the simplest formats is plain ascii (now UTF8) text. Documents created using plain text are still visible today from the begining of the of the microcomputer age and beyond in some cases (I still have files from the early 80s - that are still alive and well on my current hard drive - not so many Microsoft spreadsheet and Word documents who's formats have been deprecated and discontinued - luckily I translated those to plain text to avoid the inevitable that did indeed occur; there is nothing to say it wouldn't happen again, and I would tend to think it will).

    With new maneuvering by Microsoft and other players, more attempts are being made to lock up your data inside of proprietary (DRM) formats. Who owns the data - you or Microsoft?

    With enough buy-in an open standard may become 'industry standard' - but then again, who cares? The main point is having usable documentation that can not be held hostage to a monopoly's desire to rule your computing world.
  • Anonymous, thanks for describing it better then I could.
  • That was very well said. This whole Microsoft tactic reminds me of the early Java support/war days. Microsoft is a company with some talented engineers. If they would have spent the effort to being the best platform to run Java on or even that their Java implementation was the best (compatible) implementation to run Java on, they would have been able to significantly take much of the Java platform market. Their early Java implementations were rather good - faster than the Sun version. The sad part is that they did not just compete on quality of product. They could have, and would have done well, if not won. But, insted, they tried their best to marginalize the Java platform and make their own "Microsoft-only" version.

    They seem to be trying the same again with the Office file formats. Microsoft Office is, in many ways, the best office software for the Windows platform. If they supported OpenDocument much like they support other file formats such as WordPerfect, they would, most likely, easily become the leading OpenDocument producing product. In fact, with that leadership, they could end up becoming the "ruler" by which other OpenDocument supporting products are measured against. (Such as does it render like MS-Office, print like MS-Office, load as fast as MS-Office). And, if they got that leadership role, they could then help push the standard with newer features that others could not match as easily.

    But that would mean competing, something that Microsoft's founder Bill Gates even wrote about (before the anti-trust trial) wanting to crush the competition since competing is costly.
  • Jon tells us that the current industry standard is what sells the most, and is Microsoft's current document format.

    Microsoft's current format is not even being considered here. We're talking about Microsoft's future format which is not readable by current versions of Office.

    There is a huge cost to movign to Microsoft XML. You can't just assume that people will do it anyway so the additional cost is zero. A lot of people still use Office 2000 or earlier despite the existance of Office2003.

    To move to Microsoft's new XML standard everyone will have to buy Office 12. They may have to buy new Windows too (or even just buy Windows if they're not already using it). Just sticking with your existing Microsoft Office won't work.