OXML as Microsoft's swivel point

My apologies for not writing more this week. A rather interesting twist in my IT career occurred recently, which I'll relate later.

My apologies for not writing more this week. A rather interesting twist in my IT career occurred recently, which I'll relate later. It's exciting stuff which will involve lots of travel to rarely-visited parts of the world (well, rarely visited by me).

But enough of that. I haven't spoken much on the subject of OOXML (now simply named OXML, as the first "O" stood for Office, and that doesn't apply anymore to ISO-ratified OXML). Part of the reason is that my preferred outcome - that OXML be ratified as an ISO standard - won the day, and I don't find elaborate pieces where I dance around singing "I told you so" to be that interesting to write.

What most interests me about OXML's transition from control by Microsoft to the ISO is what it could do to Microsoft culture. Culture seems to occupy a lot of my blogging thoughts of late. It lies at the heart of my concern about Microsoft's proposed merger with Yahoo. It's the essence of what I think Microsoft most misses about itself. We need to realize that we are, at heart, a platform company, and everything should be done with an eye towards enabling developers to do interesting things, because that is what Microsoft does well. Granted, those interesting things need to include features on par with closed systems made by a certain Cupertino-based company, but the toolkit orientation should be the identity that threads everything this company does.

I look at OXML with the same glasses (no, they aren't completely rose-colored). What is interesting about OXML is that Microsoft, for the first time that I can remember, has handed over the core protocol that lies at the heart of a product that plays a critical part in the revenue story written by Microsoft. The essential nature of that revenue is the real reason Microsoft wasn't first mover in the ISO standardization game. When billions in quarterly-accrued earnings are derived from the existing structure, it's hard to take a bird's eye view and discern a need for radical change.

Change, however, has come, first with Microsoft's decision to move to a documented XML grammar for office documents, and now with its successful push to get OXML ratified by both the ECMA and ISO.

I can't say that Microsoft would have chosen the ISO path on its own (and please, that is just me saying that, not Microsoft). Events forced them down that path, to be sure, events mostly generated by a competing XML document format, the proponents of which had hoped to use its exclusive ISO-ratified status as a wedge by which to gain competitive ground against the dominant Microsoft-sponsored format.

Microsoft is now, however, irreversibly on that path. What I think will be a real eye-opener for Microsoft, however, is how being open helps Microsoft's business.

The success of Adobe's PDF is due entirely to the fact that they have been very open with the format. They standardized relatively early, and work hard to ensure that readers were available on every major platform. Adobe's success is a micro-scale example of what has happened in this Internet-enabled, globally-connected market for IT products. Standards need to be universal to really gain traction in today's marketplace. It's partly a reflection of the essential nature of modern Internet-based communications and information, but also a reflection of the fact that, in a networked world, EVERY computing device can digitally interact with every other computing device on the planet.

This isn't computing circa 1985, where computers tended to be isolated silos of processing power and, at best, compatibility needed to exist with other systems within the enterprise. This is 2008, where data flies from Hyderabad to Silicon Valley at light speeds.

That's why I'm gunning not just for OXML to be improved, but to be more successful as a public standard than it ever was as a private one (and for that success to benefit Microsoft). Nothing tends to support the arguments of those who advocate for open systems within a company as large and profitable as Microsoft more than success.

I think OXML can be the sequoia lying across the chasm from a Microsoft cultural standpoint. Other smaller trees may bridge the chasm in other places, but nothing quite as large and powerful as that sequoia. If Microsoft's Office business is enlivened by its experience with OXML, I expect that the standardization approach used there will become an instinctive part of the cultural habits at the company.

That is a good thing, one that benefits competitors as much as users of Microsoft technology.