OpenDocument/Web-based app pressure mounts on Microsoft

Last week, while Mashup Camp was taking place, a reader from Israel responded to my blog regarding Microsoft's support (actually, the lack thereof) of the OpenDocument Format.

Last week, while Mashup Camp was taking place, a reader from Israel responded to my blog regarding Microsoft's support (actually, the lack thereof) of the OpenDocument Format.  Microsoft recently got a lot of mileage in the press when it announced that it would be backing the development of an open source project designed to bridge the compatibility gap between Microsoft Office and OpenDocument Format -- an alternative to Microsoft's file formats (including the forthcoming Office Open XML format due to ship with Office 2007) for saving and retrieving documents created with word processors, spreadsheets, and presentation software.

But even though the announcement tasted great on first blush, it proved to be less filling when Microsoft admitted that while it was backing the development of the software, it would not be supporting its use if end users needed help with it. Also not clear is who would support it, if anyone.  With the reader's permission, here is a copy of the email he sent to me:

I think the right perspective for this story is less in discussing the details of this "support" (which are extremely lacking), and more in its significance in the power play between Microsoft and its customers. What Microsoft is saying is more or less:

As you know, Microsoft has two main modi operandi with regards to adding features to its software: one is developing the feature in-house, building it into a product and supporting it. The second is loosely supporting the development, by three different third-party companies in three different countries, of an open-source plug-in the user has to find, download and install and comes with no support. For this specific feature (ODF support), we've decided on the second way.

This is so convoluted, arbitrary and just over-the-top silly that I can think of only two ways one could possibly stand up and say it with a straight face: either he thinks his listeners are fools who would believe anything (which I'm assuming is not the case); or he knows he holds so much power over his customers he can say pretty much anything and get away with it, like a feudal noble addressing his serfs.

Microsoft is of course fully entitled to refuse to support ODF. What it's doing here, however, is both telling and inexcusable. Microsoft, with this announcement, is making a mockery of its customers (and the press, for that matter). Microsoft patronizingly assumes it's enough to throw them a bone (in the form of a convoluted, unbelievable story) instead of offering the functionality they demand. I sincerely hope that Microsoft's customers are better consumers than what Microsoft assumes.

The more they accept this patronizing attitude from Microsoft, the less respect they will get from it.

Uri Sivan
Aviv, Israel 

Ultimately, my sense is that customers will get the respect they deserve particularly as more goverments both inside and out of the United States (the last of which was Belgium) begin to seriously consider and/or adopt ODF as their standard file format. Looking back over the last year and a half or so, Microsoft has demonstrated a proclivity to take baby steps on the file format issue first, gauge the public's reaction, and then take more baby steps if necessary third (starting the cycle again). To be honest, that's what I'd do too (if I were Microsoft).  Why give away more than you may have to? 

Google's recent registration as a supporter of the OpenDocument Alliance will probably be a factor as well.  Not just in when Microsoft decides to officially support ODF (did you notice that I said "when," not "if?") but also in how quickly its Live strategy yields a Web-based competitor to the bumper crop of browser-based alternatives to Microsoft Office (at least two of which now come from Google -- spreadsheets and word processing). 

At this point, Microsoft's choice is about as open as Intel's was when the chip manufacturer repeatedly said it wouldn't bow to pressure from AMD to go the 32/64 hybrid route and instead, routinely extolled the virtues of the purely 64-bit Itanium (co-developed with HP) as the only path for customers to take should they feel the need for a 64-bit architecture.  The parallels in terms of the technology being shunned and the one being hung onto  (AMD64:OpenDocument, Itanium:desktop productivity) are uncanny.  Microsoft is simply too smart to not web-based productivity applications and support for ODF warmed up in the bullpen should its starting pitchers falter.

Disclosure: In the spirit of media transparency, I want to disclose that in addition to my day job at ZDNet, I'm also a co-organizer of Mashup Camp and Mashup University. Microsoft which is mentioned in this story, was a sponsor of both recent events. For more information on my involvement with these events, see the special disclosure page that I've prepared and published here on ZDNet.