Microsoft – the good, the bad and the ugly

I blogged this on the internal blog last Tuesday. I enjoyed writing it so I thought I’d copy it here.

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Yesterday Microsoft made two announcements: an extension to RSS called Simple Sharing Extensions (see my earlier blog) and the standardisation of the Microsoft Office file format.

With Simple Sharing Extensions (SSE) Microsoft has taken an existing standard (RSS underpins news feeds and technologies like pod and video casting) and applied it to the problem of synchronising of data across applications irrespective of vendor or platform. Spotting the potential in the simplicity of RSS Microsoft sketched out a draft specification that models the replication of Lotus Notes. Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes, was one of the key architects of this specification.

The specification not only has great promise in the application of data synchronisation but promises to solve an immediate problem in the area of RSS news feeds. OMPL is a standard XML file format for specifying lists of news feeds. For example, you may be interested to monitor the feeds that I monitor, so if I provide you an OMPL file you can import that into your feed reader application and all my feeds get added. However, over time my list will change and you won’t get updates. SSE provides the answer, allowing you to subscribe to my OMPL list. Already feed readers are being written with this feature based on SSE.

Dave Winer, in his blog, writes concerning Microsoft’s announcement:

“In 1996, I wrote: “Here’s an invitation to truly embrace the creativity of others. Instead of beating your *** about how great you are, try saying how great someone else is. Look for win-wins, make that your new religion. Establish a policy that nothing will be announced unless it can be shown that someone else will win because of what you’re doing. How much happier we would be if instead of crippling each other with fear, we competed to empower each others’ creativity.”

“Now, in 2005, almost ten years later, we may be grown-up enough to actually work this way.”

(emphasis mine)

I think that says it all.

So what of the second announcement – and the BAD: the standardising of Office file formats. On the surface this might seem a good thing. Since the beginning of time Microsoft has closely guarded the Office proprietary file format in an anti-competitive way. Finally, with Office 12, Microsoft has opened file format, but has imposed licence requirements that prevent some competitors from using it.

So way would Microsoft feel the need to take this open file format and present to a standards body?

OpenDocument is an alternate open file format for office applications and is the main file format for the popular open source Open Office and Sun’s variant Star Office. The benefit of an open standard is that users avoid vendor lock in.

Recently, several organisations, most publicly the US State of Massachusetts, have stated adoption of the OpenDocument standard, stating that this is the only way they can ensure that archived documents will always be retrievable. Despite this pressure Microsoft has, thus far, steadily refused to support OpenDocument in Office 12.

I believe the real motivation behind Microsoft’s move to bring the Office 12 Open XML file formats to a standard body is to squash the competing OpenDocument file format.

That is UGLY!

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I confess to being a little big provocative, and perhaps one sided in the hope that I would get some comments, but that didn’t happen. I’m still suspicious of Microsoft’s motives here and their track record of ignoring standards doesn’t give me any comfort that once Open XML is an independent standard they won’t simply extend it to accomplish some new feature. Time will tell if this leopard has really begun to change its spots.

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2 responses to “Microsoft – the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. I don’t think squashing the OpenDocument file format is MS’s goal. In fact I did hear somewhere they will support an OpenDocument ‘save-as’ facility in office 12 – but have not confirmed. A big problem with ‘industry standards’ is that they tend to stagnate due to committee style decision making from a raft of different interests. Take CSS for example, this is an outdated standard that arguably should be xml-based and part of xhtml, however this type of forward looking progression is unlikely to happen under the current web standards regime.
    By owning their own standard, MS are free to improve and innovate at will, and therefore provide competition to the OpenDocument standard, which in many ways will be good for the industry.

  2. The ‘owning their own standard’ is one of the aspects that bothers me about this. Will Microsoft change the standard and push through ratification before using the extensions in their product? I’m not sure they will.

    Standards change slowly because change requires concensus. Perhaps this slows the pace of innovation in one product, but innovations that cause issues in hetergenous environments are not helpful. If Microsoft recognise that we want things that ‘just work’, as stated by Ray Ozzie in *that memo*, then they will have to adopt and stay within standards.

    Certainly, competition for OpenDocument is a good thing.

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