Let market decide on open standards

Microsoft's platform lead dismisses suggestions it must support ODF to demonstrate a commitment to interoperability.

Open XML and the OpenDocument Format (ODF) must be allowed to compete in the market, where adoption is not determined by a vendor or standards body, says a Microsoft official.

Bill Hilf, general manager for platform strategy at Microsoft, said the market should decide what the prevailing standard should be in the war between the company's Open XML (extensible markup language) document format and the ODF.

"It's like VHS versus Betamax, where the market selected the one it wanted based on values," Hilf told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview Thursday. VHS eventually emerged as the more widely adopted video recording standard in the late 1980s.

"You want the customers to vote with their wallets," Hilf said. "The most healthy market environment is where there is competition."

Open document standards have been touted as the solution for organizations, especially governments, looking at ways to preserve documents in a vendor-neutral environment.

Developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (Oasis), the ODF was ratified as an ISO standard in May 2006. Microsoft's competing Open XML document format was certified as a standard by European standards body Ecma International, and is currently pending an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) approval.

However, research house Gartner said in a May 2006 report that the ISO is unlikely to accept another document standard and urged vendors to offer products that support ODF.

At the same time, Gartner noted, Microsoft appears to have come to terms with the increasing acceptance of the ODF, especially within the public sector, and with the necessity of providing some level of interoperability.

Hilf said: "One of the most important things that we've done in the past year is to initiate work around the translation between the two [ODF and Open XML] formats." Microsoft last month released a translator plug-in that converts Open XML format to ODF, as part of an open source project sponsored by Microsoft.

"I think we're making some good progress on how we're interacting with the community, to make sure there is less friction in an environment where there are multiple standards existing," Hilf said.

He dismissed suggestions that Microsoft has to support the ODF format natively to demonstrate it was serious about enabling interoperability. He noted that Microsoft Office and OpenOffice, which default file format is the ODF, are vastly different.

"The way objects and data is manipulated in Office is fundamentally different, technically, from the way OpenOffice works," Hilf said.

"A boat and a car both provide transportation, but they're radically different," he said. "That's something that a lot of people don't understand--they look at the surface and say that it's just a productivity suite or text editor, and that the same format should just be used."

"The ODF is absolutely not we could use as a format for Office--it's technically not the right thing to do, and it wouldn't work," he added. "I can't take the design of a car engine and stick that into an airplane."

The idea of translators plug-ins, Hilf said, is more realistic and necessary for interoperability. "The key is to make sure the people who have commercial interests are committed to the open source community, to make sure these translator tools are as effective as possible," he said.

Notwithstanding, Garter said last July that Microsoft's strategy for attaining interoperability is "shrewd". "By using third-parties to do the work and opening the project to the open source community, Microsoft will minimize potential criticism from those who claim that Microsoft aims to undermine the ODF standard," said the analyst house, which anticipates uncertainty on which document format will become the de facto standard, at least through 2008.

Hilf also rebuffed criticism that its alliance with Novell was a move by Microsoft to divide the open source community, specifically since the covenant not to sue each other for potential patent infringements is an exclusive agreement.

"There was some knee-jerk reaction that Microsoft is now going out to sue everybody for patents, but that's not our business model," he said, adding that in its history, Microsoft has only sued twice for patent infringements.

"[But] at any given point including today, there's an average of around 35 to 40 lawsuits against us," he said. "We're not a patent troll where we go out to make money from our patents."