What makes Microsoft blink

I read with interest David Berlind's latest remarks about the ongoing saga of XML versus ODF. [See Top open source lawyer blesses new terms on Microsoft's XML file format.

I read with interest David Berlind's latest remarks about the ongoing saga of XML versus ODF. [See Top open source lawyer blesses new terms on Microsoft's XML file format.] Several points come to mind which should not be overlooked:

  • Regardless of what "spin" Microsoft might choose to put on it, the company blinked when the prospect became reality that their XML format was not included in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ETRM. This is a clear reminder that, despite their heavy-handedness, Microsoft will respond to sufficient customer pressure.
  • Submitting the XML specification to both the ISO and to ECMA indicates that Microsoft's problems with the EU are a contributing factor in their decision.
  • The "conformance" aspect of Microsoft's covenant puts its competitors on notice that any attempt to offer a superset of the XML specification which is not compatible with Microsoft products puts them in jeopardy of being sued for non-compliance with the XML schema. In effect, Microsoft is attempting to make sure that its large competitors will not gain an advantage through the use of Microsoft's own intellectual property.

Others have asked why Microsoft cannot/will not support ODF when they are willing to support PDF. The reason is really quite clear: Microsoft comes from a position of strength in rejecting ODF because existing MS Office file formats dominate the desktop space -- while ODF is but a blip on the radar. However, Microsoft comes from a position of weakness with regards to PDF because the PDF format dominates the web space -- and Microsoft wants to make inroads into that space. Supporting PDF while promoting XML is not unlike the approach Microsoft took when it introduced MS Word in a WordPerfect-dominated marketplace -- it supported WP formats while promoting a transition to Word. The same thing happened in transforming a Lotus 1-2-3-dominated marketplace into an Excel-dominated marketplace.

In the end, it is competitive pressures from IBM, Sun, and other top tier competitors that Microsoft wants to avoid. At the same time, it wants to keep the regulator-wolves in the EU and at DoJ at bay. By opening up its XML schema to the little guys who just want to compete for a small piece of the pie at entry-level prices (for which Microsoft can no longer afford to compete) while not letting the Sun, IBM and others compete at more profitable price-points, Microsoft hopes to have its cake and eat it too. Regulators have no more interest in enabling IBM and Sun to dominate than they have in allowing Microsoft to continue to dominate. By their letting the open-source community compete, regulators are more likely to look favorably upon Microsoft as one of many choices.

As for whether others (including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) pick up the XML ball, it remains to be seen -- but I find it hard to believe that Massachusetts could continue to justify keeping Microsoft off the list under this scenario. Certainly, your suggestion that Google could be a "swing vote" in a web-based services market raises the stakes for IBM and Sun, who are likely to want to woo Google into the ODF fold -- and away from XML.