The company people want Microsoft to be

The recent announcements regarding Microsoft's plans to include native support for ODF and PDF as part of Office 2007 SP2 was certainly unexpected. They had just managed to get OXML ratified by ISO, a move that was clearly aimed to counter a format that had benefited from its decision to submit itself to standardization groups early.

The recent announcements regarding Microsoft's plans to include native support for ODF and PDF as part of Office 2007 SP2 was certainly unexpected. They had just managed to get OXML ratified by ISO, a move that was clearly aimed to counter a format that had benefited from its decision to submit itself to standardization groups early. Wouldn't the standardization of OXML make inclusion of ODF unnecessary?

Clearly, that wasn't deemed the case, and though I think skepticism is warranted, the move is a hopeful one. There is no pro-ODF blog anywhere on the planet that doesn't express hope that they can take Microsoft at face value on this.

A Microsoft that fearlessly suports ODF and PDF in its products is the kind of company most people, consumers and regulators alike, want Microsoft to be. To my mind, if Microsoft is serious about this, it is a sign that someone, somewhere higher up the management heirarchy realizes that Microsoft is a platform company, and platforms must be trustworthy enablers of technology intercommunication.

Of course, being a trustworthy enabler doesn't necessarily mandate that Microsoft must be the prime mover behind support for alternative formats and protocols in its products. I think it's enough that they make it easy to create format plugins that support ODF and PDF (which they do). Microsoft DOES make its own formats, and I think its fair that they give most of their attention to their own formats. OpenOffice certainly does that.

On the other hand, Office 2007 is a quite competitive product in its own right. I got the chance to do a healthy bit of presentation creation using OpenOffice during my trip through Africa, and though I found it to be a useful product, I vastly preferred Office 2007. My sister, hardly a computer enthusiast and perfectly willing to reject a software product irrespective of the the fact its maker happens to pay my paycheck, loves Office 2007...and I have plenty of people not related to me that think the new ribbon interface is great.

Besides, by opting not to support the format themselves, they just leave the door open for someone else's code to be used in its place. ODF plugins do exist. By creating their own format converters and including them as part of Office 2007, they make life a lot easier for most users, but they also better ensure that they control the code chain. A recipe for mischief? Perhaps...but then again, if they ARE serious about being open (which they should be), it doesn't have to be that way.

On that note, if Microsoft is really interested in thinking more like a platform company circa 2008 (versus a platform company circa 1995, where robust extensibility APIs might have been considered sufficient), I wonder if they'd be willing to consider other areas of "openness:"

1. Live Messenger: Back when Microsoft was an IM upstart, Microsoft sang the song of "open IM," and started a rather noisy hacking war with AIM - then the dominant IM client - where Microsoft developers enabled access to AIM users for a few days, only to be blocked a bit later when AIM developers closed the connection down. Windows Messenger was SIP-compatible, and sites abound describing how to use the old Windows Messenger 5.1 product as a SIP client.

Today, Windows Messenger is no longer maintained, replaced by Live Messenger (a closed IM system) and Office Communicator (SIP-based, but tailored for use with Live Communication Server). I'd love to see Microsoft jump on an open-SIP bandwagon. That would seem an effective counter to the growing XMPP/Jabber IM universe.

More to the point, an ubiquitous IM client that guaranteed interoperability with all SIP-compatible servers would light the IM world on fire...in a good way. GoogleTalk regularly receives free functionality on account of the fact that it interoperates for free with the Jabber universe. Imagine what could occur with the vastly more popular Live Messenger.

2. XBOX: XBOX is fun. I have one (albeit one I received through a programming contest), use it as the front-end for my TV (I watch TV through Media Center, which turns my PC into a streaming server for live TV), and would play a lot more games on it if I hadn't become so damn busy.

Then again, I am keenly aware that XBOX is not a normal Microsoft product. For a platform company that supports a large ecosystem of third-party products through its APIs and operating systems, XBOX stands out for the degree to which it is locked down like Fort Knox. In that regard, it strikes me as more like an iPhone than a typical Microsoft product.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if it was easy for third parties to make custom, non-game applications targeted at the one Microsoft platform that is directly attached to the TV set? Further, wouldn't it be wonderful if that platform was the XBOX?

Granted, Microsoft makes a bit of cash from XBOX Live, and that relies on networking capability not being a free service (which likely explains why XNA didn't include networking support out of the gate). On the other hand, there has to be an advantage to having millions of third party developers in the world all trying to find interesting ways to enhance the value of your TV-attached platform. It's a recipe that worked for desktop Windows.

Perhaps the PMs responsible for these projects think these are steps too far. Then again, I had always thought that Microsoft would not include ODF as a natively supported format in Office 2007.

Personally, I think that a more open Microsoft, one that shows consistency in its approach across product lines and does so for a long enough time to be statistically relevant, builds trust. Once they have trust, its a lot easier for Microsoft to include ANYTHING they want into their products, because the assumption will be that alternatives are ALWAYS available and choosable.

That's the way a platform company is supposed to operate. It's not the strategy of an Apple, but Microsoft isn't Apple...nor should it try to be, except in the realm of good UI that it subsequently makes available to licensees of its platforms.