Cruel truth surfaces in the OOXML war

In the heat of conflict, propaganda gives way to proof. Microsoft may be feeling that heat over its so-called document standard

"You took my ship by surprise, captain," Von Hellmuth said slowly. "Otherwise…"

His tone hinted at treachery, unfair tactics, a course of conduct outrageous to German honour.

"And what the hell have you been doing all these months," Ericson thought, "except taking people by surprise, stalking them, giving them no chance?" But that idea would not have registered. Instead he smiled ironically and said: "It is war. I am sorry if it is too hard for you."

Von Hellmuth gave him a furious glance, but he did not answer the remark: he saw, too late, that, by complaining of his defeat, he had confessed to weakness.

(The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat, 1951)

There is little as revealing as complaints made in anger. Such would seem to be the case with Microsoft, whose frustration with the approval process for Office Open XML (OOXML) has spilled out into accusations of underhand behaviour on the part of IBM. Speaking this week, Nicos Tsilas, senior director of interoperability and IP policy at Microsoft, said of IBM: "They have made this a religious and highly political debate. They are doing this because it is advancing their business model."

It is hard to believe that Microsoft of all people, experienced as it is in international standardisation, was hitherto unaware of such practices. But the real revelation comes with Tsilas's quote that "IBM have asked governments to have an open-source, exclusive purchasing policy. Our competitors have targeted this one product — mandating one document format over others to harm Microsoft's profit stream."

Perhaps it is a mere slip of the tongue that has Tsalis mixing up open source with open standards. There are good arguments for and against mandating open source in government — protecting business models or profit streams should not be among them — but open standards are a very different matter. Microsoft has said all along that OOXML will be just as open as OpenDocument Format (ODF). How, then, can adopting the latter "harm Microsoft's profit stream"? And since when has an open standard been "a product"?

Tsilas is admitting, more explicitly than implicitly, that Microsoft's profit depends on it controlling standards and that OOXML is a product designed to do exactly that. The mask has slipped and the nature of this particular war is on display. As Ericson, captain of HMS Compass Rose, might say: we are sorry if it is too hard for you, Microsoft.