Microsoft must drop its Office politics

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

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.


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