The Microsoft/ODF Day After: Almost everyone gets it wrong

Today, the day after the big news, there are more headlines than I can count regarding Microsoft's sponsorship of an open source-based translator for converting Office Open XML formatted documents to OpenDocument Format (ODF) formatted documents. I think it's important to point out that many of the headlines and stories either got the news wrong, or they have a different definition of support than I have.

Today, the day after the big news, there are more headlines than I can count regarding Microsoft's sponsorship of an open source-based translator for converting Office Open XML formatted documents to OpenDocument Format (ODF) formatted documents. I think it's important to point out that many of the headlines and stories either got the news wrong, or they have a different definition of support than I have.  Here's a sampling of those stories:

  • Microsoft to put ODF support in Office (Infoworld) -- Microsoft announced Wednesday the creation of the Open XML Translator project, so its Office suite will support the OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard.
  • Microsoft shows support for ODF (TechNewsWorld) -- Microsoft plans to release its Open XML translator tools as open source software in an effort to accelerate interoperability and expand customer choice.
  • Microsoft to support ODF with plug-in (my fellow ZDNet blogger Dana Blankenhorn)
  • Microsoft relents to pressure on OpenDocument Format (The Wall Street Journal) -- Microsoft Corp., bowing to pressure from governments, will offer free software that will let Word, Excel and PowerPoint handle documents in a rival technology format promoted by Sun Microsystems Inc., International Business Machines Corp. and others....The Redmond, Wash., software maker today will post on the Internet software that will let users of Microsoft applications view and create documents in the OpenDocument Format.
  • Microsoft to offer open source document format (The Financial Times) -- Microsoft on Thursday bowed to pressure from governments to offer new free open source software that will allow its Office suite of programmes to handle documents in rival formats...The company said it would develop tools to build a “technical bridge” between its own Open XML document format and the OpenDocument format (ODF).
  • Microsoft will support OpenDocument (The Inquirer)
  • Microsoft Office to support OpenDocument Format (CIO Magazine)
  • Playing the standards game the Microsoft Way (eWeek's Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols) -- Microsoft will, however, be supplying technical support...Why, oh why, do I think that Translator's technical support line will often be telling users that the fault for a botched document transfer lies at ODF's door? And somehow I think Microsoft's technical support's usual suggested "fix" will be to just use Microsoft's own Open XML instead. "It's so much better," they'll say to annoyed users.

As best as I can tell from the what's been published by Microsoft and what I've been told by a spokesperson for the company, it is not Microsoft that's releasing this tool.  Rather, the tool will be available as an open source  download from Sourceforge  -- a download for which at least three companies external to Microsoft will be doing the bulk of the work under the auspices of the Open XML Translator Project: Clever Age, Aztecsoft, and Dialogika. In challenging Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Jason Matusow, Microsoft's director of standards affairs, posted the following comment on his blog:

...If you read the original story you'll see that Vaughn-Nicols got it wrong....We ARE providing architectural guidance and funding to the 3 companies involved. We are not currently contributing code....

From my interview with Microsoft regarding the annoucement, my general sense was that Microsoft would be available to the project's developers for consultative  input on technical matters relating to Office Open XML but that when it came to technical matters relating to ODF, Microsoft would not be playing a role.  Additionally, Microsoft said it will forward any bug reports it receives from end-users of Microsoft Office to the project's developers (along with some sense of their priority) but that beyond that, it would not be playing any role in their resolution.  

The net net is that between a some liaising with the project that Microsoft says will be the responsibility of one of its  product managers, Microsoft's financial backing and jumpstarting of the project as well as the software giant's public endorsement of it, Microsoft is clearly very supportive of the project's existence.  That's great for users of Microsoft Office with an interest in ODF because of how far Microsoft has come since the beginning of 2005 when it would have nothing to do with the rival-promoted file format.  As I wrote yesterday, I'm pretty sure there's only a handful of people who've been watching all along and who can really appreciate the great distance Microsoft has covered in 18 months.  Microsoft deserves a lot of credit for making the changes it has made so far. But being supportive of the project and supporting ODF are two very different things if you ask me, at least as far as how this concerns end-users. 

Microsoft is on the record as saying it will not be offering technical support to end-users for this translator. In fact, as far as I know, no one will officially be offering support (perhaps one of the three companies involved will, for a fee).  As said earlier, Microsoft will accept bug reports and forward them on to the project's developers.  But as a long as this is a download from Sourceforge that end-users install on their own, this is no different from a support point of view than any other Office plug-in from a third-party. For example, if I built a plug-in for Outlook that converts your entire email database to something that's Eudora compatible, you wouldn't say "Outlook supports conversion to Eudora."  This implies that the support is built into Outlook and is backed up (including technical support) by Microsoft.  You'd say "Support for conversion to Eudora is available from David Berlind." 

Going back to the headlines and/or their supporting text, you can see how easily the authors got caught in a semantic trap.  Microsoft is not putting ODF support in Office. It's not releasing its own translator.  It's not offering free software.   It's not offering an open source document format and it's certainly not supporting the OpenDocument Format (at least not in the way that most users interpret the words support when they see it in a technology headline). 

I reached out to Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady whose own headline read Microsoft Office to support ODF: The Q&A. Microsoft is a one of the research firm's clients but that doesn't seem to stop any of the Redmonk analysts from being critical  at times of those vendors in their blogs.  In response to my objection (reprinted here with this permssion), O'Grady wrote:

It's a fair point, i suppose, and the question of support is a good one that [Sun's] Jaime [Cardoso] raised on my blog and [Microsoft's] Jason [Matusow] has promised to look into, and that i've promised to follow up on....But it's also worth noting that the open source project is both funded and managed by Microsoft - which i would term support of a kind - and that the third party technology, as is the case with PDF, is being integrated into Office in a closer fashion than are other plugins going to Office Update, it's right there in the File menu...Ideal? No. as i said in the blog, I think Microsoft has decided upon a course of action that will - and probably is intended to - throttle usage and adoption of the format.  But I do believe that Microsoft choosing to fund and integrate a project that supports an open standard competitor of theirs into their product is support, just not the kind we might like to see.

Earlier today, O'Grady blogged about our email conversation in a follow up post regarding the Microsoft announcement.  It's clearly a question of semantics. But, in my more than 15 years of tech journalism, the word "support" always carried with it the implication that the vendor in question would back up the functionality through its technical support. Maybe times and the media are changing. 

In the bigger picture, now comes the question of the net effect of this semantic confusion.  To the extent that Microsoft would prefer to see end-users adopt Office Open XML over ODF, one could argue that the erroneous headines just gave ODF more publicity than it ever could have dreamed of (I know of know other news event relating to ODF that generated as much worldwide coverage).  Ultimately, the news could result in even more traction for ODF.  Others might argue that the confusion will result in easing people's minds about purchasing Microsoft Office, thinking it supports this important format. OK, so Office support for ODF is available through a third-party Microsoft funded plug-in (as well as some other sources).  The question is, when something goes wrong, who ya gonna call?

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 and Sun, both of which are mentioned in this story, are sponsors of both upcoming events. For more information on my involvement with these events, see the special disclosure page that I've prepared and published here on ZDNet.


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