ECMA move is standard fare from Microsoft

In taking the Office 12 file format to ECMA so it can be called a standard, Microsoft will be hoping to derail the OpenDocument bandwagon; it's just standard manoeuvring that we have seen before

One of the reasons that the Department of Justice was so keen to split Microsoft into several Baby Bills was the advantage that the company's Office suite division was seen to have over its rivals. Because the Office team worked so closely with the operating system team, it was argued, they were able to implement features that appeared in each new version of Windows before the competition even knew about them. Sometimes, these features remained undocumented for the outside world, and the competition, which had to languor without the advantage of owning a monopoly operating system, never got to know about them at all.

Microsoft may arguably have pioneered many features of the modern office application suite, but its rise to such a dominant position in the market was also certainly helped by those tactics which ensured it was always able to keep one step ahead of its competition.

Today, the battle has turned to document formats. Throughout the 90s Microsoft had plenty of company in the practice of using proprietary document formats. Now, many organisations are growing increasingly aware of the risks posed by using proprietary file formats; the fact they really do not have full control at all over data stored in a proprietary file format, all rights to which are owned by another company.

Massachusetts has grabbed both the headlines and Microsoft's attention with its new focus on the OpenDocument format, which could be enough to force a mass switch to For a company whose file formats are so entrenched that government departments only deal with suppliers who also use Microsoft Office, this is anathema. Microsoft's reaction? To take its own XML file format down the standards route, via ECMA. This may make it a standard, but it will be a standard that is protected by Microsoft-owned patents, a standard that has no other notable industry backing, and a standard that continues to give Microsoft first-mover advantage. If Microsoft really cared about standards, it would introduce its own file format to a properly open standards process, or even get involved with OpenDocument.

That may yet happen. In the meantime, the biggest mistake we could make is to think that Microsoft's approach to ECMA will render OpenDocument obsolete. It won't. OpenDocument has forced Microsoft to come this far and can push it further yet.