Microsoft's campaign to help Linux on the desktop

Sometimes I think that if Microsoft didn't exist, Linux fans would have had to invent it. It's the company everyone in Linux land loves to hate--very often with good reason, sometimes without reason.

COMMENTARY--Sometimes I think that if Microsoft didn't exist, Linux fans would have had to invent it. It's the company everyone in Linux land loves to hate--very often with good reason, sometimes without reason, and occasionally just because it feels good. Recently, Redmond seems to be returning the compliment in kind.

People in open source land don't begrudge Microsoft's right to earn income so much as its tactics in doing so. And, at least in the case of applications, there's one tactic at the top of just about every open source advocate's hit list: the use of proprietary, undocumented file formats--the code that stores where text is bolded and margins changed.

Had Microsoft not adopted this tactic, most users might still be using Office 95, but by making file formats of newer versions of Office unreadable by older versions, Microsoft created a pressing need to upgrade, even among users who didn't need any of the newer features.

"It's like a virus," I remember one MS-Office user telling me. "You're fine so long as everyone's using the older version. The moment one user gets the new version, everyone needs to upgrade in order to be able to communicate with that person, even if they were happy using the old version."

An important side result of keeping the file format proprietary was that other word processing programs couldn't properly import Office files. All have significant flaws in their Word(tm) import functions. Thus Microsoft could -- and did -- gain end-to-end control over the way people shared documents, as well as how they create them.

This problem has been a consistent sore point in the open source world. Open source programmers didn't mind competing with Microsoft on features, but at least wanted to be able to move files back and forth between Office and its alternatives.

In response to my previous assertion that a US government-ordered breakup of Microsoft wouldn't necessarily help the growth of alternatives such as Linux, I received a number of replies from readers who believe that simply opening the file formats would balance the playing field enough to give the open source world a reasonable chance to compete.

With the next release of Office, known as Office XP, these users may get their wish. The native file format of Office XP is based on XML, a high-level superset of HTML that should be, practically by definition, open enough for anyone to create the tools necessary to accurately read and write Office files.

In the past, Microsoft protocols, when they've been open enough, have been well implemented by open source developers. The two best examples of this have been the DHCP protocol for obtaining boot settings and the SMB protocol for file sharing.

Both DHCP and SMB were invented by Microsoft, essentially re-inventing existing protocols well-known in the Unix world (bootp and nfs, respectively). The open source world implemented DHCP for Linux and other platforms, and many feel the Samba server makes Linux as good a Microsoft file server as any software Microsoft makes.

Will opening the Office file formats instantly make free software projects such as KOffice, AbiWord, and OpenOffice into head-to-head equals of Office? Of course not. But it will allow them to compete on what people consider real features rather than "Can it read Word(tm) files?"

Office's use of XML could help the Linux desktop as much as Microsoft's opening of SMB allowed Samba to help Linux become such a competitive server. To be sure, there are still usability issues with current Linux GUIs, and Windows still runs many more applications than the Linux desktop. However, both GNOME and KDE are making serious progress at improving ease of use, and if Wine won't take care of running Windows apps then Win4Lin will.

Microsoft's XML file format, for all it will do for Windows and Office users, may offer a greater advantage to fans of the company's competition than it does to Microsoft.

Do you think Office's use of XML provides an opportunity to alternative office suites? Tell Evan in the Talkback below or the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or, write to Evan directly at Evan@starnix.com.