Microsoft 'enemies' make for strange bedfellows

Collaborations come and go. Open Document Format is but the latest round in the battle for competitive advantage.

I am continually reminded of that old maxim "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" -- in IT this old saying takes many forms and leaves us with many strange bedfellows.

David Berlind's recent article, IBM's potential MS-Office killer to roll out by year's end, reminds me of how everyone's favorite "bad guy" (Microsoft) brings together such strange bedfellows as IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Of course, on the ODF (Open Document Format) front, there are many Microsoft "enemies" -- from the Linux 'free software' zealots (sorry guys) to government (the City of Munich, the State of Massachusetts) and finally to the fiercest of competitors, such as IBM. Each has a different motive but all want the same thing -- the ability to interact with data prepared with Microsoft tools without having to use Microsoft tools.

In the end, "open standards" are just another way of saying "lowest common denominator." For government, "standards" means not having to repeatedly convert old data from format to format to keep it accessible to the public. For the end-user, it means cheap but functional software - usually without many bells and whistles. Open standards mean commodity pricing for the consumer and little, if any, competitive advantage for the vendor. Open standards allow the competition to encroach upon monopolized markets (such as those monopolized by Microsoft today) but once competitors break into those markets, they start to deviate from those very open standards in order to gain competitive advantage. ODF is only the latest round in the battle for competitive advantage.

For IBM's part in its current collaboration with Sun, its interest is in introducing, as David puts it, "an MS-Office killer" -- in part to "poke Bill gates in the eye" but also to demonstrate that it can build a better mousetrap. One which has all of the collaborative strengths of Office but with a scalability and portability second to none. Sun, for its part, is interested in this collaboration because IBM has put its eggs on the Java basket -- and with good reason. Java is quickly becoming the standard platform for many portable applications from cell phones to PDAs and now, thanks to IBM, to "big iron."

But it really depends a lot on the topic at hand as to who is who's "enemy"...

For instance, above we are talking about IBM & Sun against Microsoft. If we are talking about bringing down Linux, Microsoft is aligned with Sun -- and both are hoping against hope that SCO will prevail against Linux licensees. (And neither one would mind too terribly much if IBM got a black eye for SCO's efforts in court.) Unlike IBM (and perhaps Novell), neither Sun nor Microsoft are threatened by SCO's antics, so they are free to collaborate against RedHat and its brethren in the Linux VAR business.

In the UNIX server world, IBM, HP, and Sun are fierce competitors who find themselves nervously standing together -- selling Linux "on the side" in order to keep RedHat, SuSe, Debian, et al, at bay. (And, along with Novell, wishing that SCO would just dry-up and blow away. After all, without SCO breathing down their necks, they become free to blend the best of Linux and the best of UNIX into whatever products they feel provides them a competitive advantage.

On the desktop front, its all those little Linux distributions (from Slackware to Fedora, from Linspire to NLD) that are all "ganging up" against "bad old" Microsoft -- yet none of them has the needed capital, or marketing prowess, to develop a truly effective consumer-friendly competitor to the Windows desktop.

Today, only Apple's Mac OS X offers a truly consumer-friendly alternative to Windows. (Yes, I hear you all screaming at me but all of you Linux aficionados are techies -- not consumers who don't know beans about personal computers.) The reasons why Apple has not effectively penetrated the desktop market are complex but the driving force early-on was price. Today, lack of available consumer-grade software also plays a big role. Unlike many Linux desktop vendors, Apple controls its own destiny and has the business it wants.

Collaborations come and go but in a free market vendors will always seek competitive advantage over each other as they vie for the customers they want. Sometimes they want to sell to us -- and sometimes they don't. We pick and chose our vendors and they pick and choose their customers.