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Massachusetts and Microsoft

September 19, 2005

Massachusetts's Information Technology Division has released Microsoft's formal 15-page reply to the state's controversial draft policy on information standards. That policy would mandate that the Open Document Format be used for all "office" documents (ie, word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation documents). Because OpenDocument is incompatible with Microsoft's Office applications, the Massachusetts policy would effectively require state agencies to abandon Microsoft Office. The state has also published various other comments it has received from companies, including IBM, Sun, Adobe and Corel.

Although I'm a resident of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I have to admit that I haven't been paying much attention to this situation up until now. I assumed it was just another case of anti-Microsoftism, an assumption backed up by the press's "Massachusetts Dumps Office" headlines. I was wrong. This isn't about Microsoft. It's about a state government launching a serious and comprehensive initiative to replace its fragmented, inefficient set of traditional information systems with a modern, coherent, and flexible IT architecture that allows data to be shared and reused easily. The adoption of OpenDocument as a standard is just one element of the state's ambitious plan. As described in a comprehensive technical paper, called the Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM), the state aims to make a transition "from siloed, application-centric and agency-centric information technology investments to an enterprise approach where applications are designed to be flexible, to take advantage of shared and reusable components, to facilitate the sharing and reuse of data where appropriate and to make the best use of the technology infrastructure that is available."

The proposal for adopting consistent, open standards for document formats needs to be understood in the context of this broad, long-term effort. The state, like other government bodies, is struggling to meet three particular challenges with regard to the large number of digital documents it produces and stores: (1) sharing the information in those documents seamlessly among diverse agencies (overcoming the incompatibilities of its various existing systems and data formats), (2) ensuring the accessibility and integrity of those documents in perpetuity, and (3) guaranteeing that information can be dispersed quickly in the case of a disaster or other emergency. (The problems that governments had in responding to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, some of which can be traced to an inability to share data among diverse computer systems, reveal the urgency of this last goal.) To accomplish these goals, it is requiring that all government agencies use a common set of non-proprietary, XML-based data standards, including OpenDocument for office documents. While the state admits that OpenDocument is in its infancy as an approved standard (it was recently certified by the OASIS standard-setting group) and that it will likely undergo substantial changes, it is nevertheless the only certified, non-proprietary standard available. (It should be noted, in fairness to Microsoft, that while Microsoft is a member of OASIS, the committee on document standards is dominated by representatives from Sun and IBM, two companies with an interest in undermining Microsoft's control of office software.)

In its response to the state's proposal, Microsoft makes valid points that deserve careful consideration. It points out that shifting to a new standard like OpenDocument would entail risks, costs, and disruptions. State workers and contractors, who currently rely on Microsoft Office (or other applications with proprietary document formats), would have to have their existing applications replaced with new applications that comply with OpenDocument, such as the open-source OpenOffice suite. Considerable retraining would likely be required, and untold numbers of existing documents would have to be translated into OpenDocument. "Given [that] the majority of Executive Department agencies currently use office applications such as MS Office, Lotus Notes and WordPerfect that produce documents in proprietary formats, the magnitude of the migration effort to this new open standard is considerable," argues Microsoft. "There is simply no principled basis for causing the foregoing costs to be borne by the Commonwealth, its citizens, and the private sector, particularly given a) the significant flaws with the OpenDocument format, and b) the availability of more cost effective alternative ways to achieve the Commonwealth’s principal data interoperability objectives."

Microsoft also points out that OpenDocument, as an "immature" standard, lacks flexibility in its current form and that relying on it may limit the state's ability to capitalize on technological advances from Microsoft and other companies: "the OpenDocument format lacks a number of capabilities that are increasingly important in modern computing environments. Modern documents need to be able to handle embedded pictures, audio, video, maps, voice, data, database schema, web pages, and other data types. The ETRM proposal acknowledges that these needs are not yet addressed. Similarly, the proposal does not address the integration of documents with communication, collaboration, messaging, document management systems or other applications. In short, by limiting state agencies to the use of specific technology, the proposal will simply penalize agencies by prohibiting new useful technology advancements, whether from Microsoft or other sources."

Finally, Microsoft argues that the state is being unfair. It claims that its own XML-based document formats, while proprietary, are "openly documented, royalty-free licensed formats" and thus adequately fulfill the state's definition of "open formats" as "data file formats based on an underlying open standard, developed by an open community, and affirmed by a standards body; or de facto format standards controlled by other entities that are fully documented and available for public use under perpetual, royalty-free, and nondiscriminatory terms [emphasis added]."

Microsoft is, in essence, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo. It says that "Commonwealth agencies should be allowed to choose the technologies that best suit their needs, particularly in a context where, as here, multiple open and competing technologies/formats are available and supported in the marketplace, with many document conversion utilities already available and with no licensing barriers to future conversion software." But this reveals the flaw in Microsoft's position. The state has determined that the status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. It believes that the lack of standardization in technology and data is undermining its ability to do its work effectively on behalf of its citizens. The state, in other words, has made a conscious decision to endure short-term disruption in order to achieve a flexible and efficient IT architecture for the future.

Indeed, when Microsoft points out the difficulties inherent in translating existing documents in a variety of incompatible, proprietary formats into a single open format, it is inadvertantly backing up the state's argument. The only way to guarantee that the state's document archive will be accessible in the future is to move to a common standard today. If translating all those documents will be hard now, as it no doubt will be, imagine how much harder it would be if the state put the job off for another decade or two. The status quo is the problem the state has to solve; it is not a solution to the problem.

While Microsoft is also correct in stating that adopting an immature standard like OpenDocument is risky, its position here is transparently self-serving. The only way that a standard can move from immaturity to maturity is by being used, as broadly as possible. If everyone followed Microsoft's advice to shun new standards, then no mature open standard would ever develop, and proprietary standards, such as Microsoft's, would forever go unchallenged. If there's to be progress, there has to be a risk-taker.

What about the argument that Microsoft's freely licensed Office document formats meet the state's requirements for openness? (In a preliminary decision earlier this year, the state itself seemed to agree with this argument.) There is ongoing debate over exactly how freely these formats will be able to be used once they're rolled out in Office 12 next year. But the real problem here is that Microsoft is a private company that ultimately must act in the best interests of its shareholders, not necessarily in the best interests of the governmental agencies that use its products. It's not enough to believe in Microsoft's sincerity about freely licensing its formats today; a state has to ask itself whether at some future point Microsoft might, for good business reasons, change its current approach - or, for that matter, whether Microsoft Office will even exist in anything like its current form in 10 or 20 or 50 years time. Again, it's important to remember that the state's proposed policy is focused not on the short or even the medium term but on the long run. It has to make the decisions today that best guarantee the fulfillment of its long-term goals.

In commenting on Microsoft's response, Massachusetts's secretary of administration and finance, Eric Kriss, put the state's position into perspective. "It's an important issue," he told the Boston Globe. "'Open formats are at the very heart of our democratic process. The question is whether a sovereign state has the obligation to ensure that its public documents remain forever free and unencumbered by patent, license, or other technical impediments. We say, yes, this is an imperative. Microsoft says they disagree and want the world to use their proprietary formats."

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about the immediate implications of the state's decision. As a test, I downloaded a document in the Open Document Format from the state's web site. I was unable to open it with any application I have. I would like to know how the state will ensure that its residents, and not just its workers, will have access to state documents in the future, given that only a tiny minority of residents currently have OpenOffice applications on their computers. But despite my personal qualms, I think Massachusetts is doing the right thing in coming to grips with the problems inherent in the current model of organizational computing. Putting off the pain of adopting a better approach to managing information technology and digital data will only make the pain worse. The state has clearly given a great deal of thought to its plan, and it should see it through. Microsoft has said that it will not make its Office applications compatible with the OpenDocument format. As a private company, it has every right to make that decision. What it doesn't have is the right to impose its interests on a government body - or, for that matter, on anyone else.

Comments

"Microsoft is, in essence, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo."

I feel it deserves mention that Microsoft is only asking for the maintenance of the status quo regarding the free choice, not the status quo regarding closed file formats.

In fact, the file format of Office 12, due out in beta in a matter of weeks and to be officially launched in the second half of 2006, is exlusively based on XML. In Office 11 ("Office 2003"), the user could use "Save As" to save his document in XML. Not so in Office 12. XML has become the native format in Office 12, it will always save your document as XML (unless you use "Save As" to save to older formats).

Microsoft has patents on their XML format, but they have also irreversably provided a free license on the format to developers and users. Expect that open source viewers and editors will provide the ability to author documents according to Microsoft's XML standard. It wouldn't surprise me if some of these were web based, and require only a web browser.

Undoubtably, using XML just so happens to be in Microsoft's interest to improve their overall software offering, and is ultimately intended to make more money. That's fine. From the user's and developer's perspective, what matters is that Office 12 documents are as open as any other standard, and that the standard is (likely to be) widely adopted by the industry.

"Open standards" should not be abused to create legislation that imposes IBM or Sun's XML standard over Microsoft's XML standard, or visa versa. I much prefer to use true merit, and cost-benefit analysis, as primary criteria for evaluation.

Posted by: Filip Verhaeghe at September 19, 2005 04:04 AM

As some one that is involved on a daily basis in the design and implementation of government websites, I think that Massachusetts is right to be be moving toward a solution that isn't tied to the fortunes of a particular vendor.

Contrary to Filip's comment above, this is not a question of cost-benefit for the state, it's a question of ensuring that documents are available to all citizens without depending upon the goodwill of a corporation. Microsoft's track record in using open formats and ensuring accessibility is not a good one, and just because Office 12 will use XML doesn't guarantee that documents using it will be well-formed, accessible, and usable by other software.

Posted by: Tim Swan at September 19, 2005 12:15 PM

Regarding the potential short-term disruptions from the switch to OpenDocument, you write: "I would like to know how the state will ensure that its residents, and not just its workers, will have access to state documents in the future, given that only a tiny minority of residents currently have OpenOffice applications on their computers."
I would say that this is a non-issue, because Massachusetts only has to put a link for downloading OpenDocument-compatible office software next to every downloadable document on its sites. Further, given the availability of multiple OpenDocument-compatible office suites that run in multiple operating systems and which anyone can download for free, one could even argue that OpenDocument is superior to any proprietary format in terms of ensuring that anyone can have access to all documents -- no matter which operating system and/or applications they may or may not have installed in the computer.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at September 19, 2005 02:30 PM

The larger movement has never been about Microsoft.  It's about what the dominant software companies don't allow.  As many of those companies have now adapted, it is getting to be closer to being about Microsoft, specifically with regard to what they won't allow.

If it were about Microsoft, people would be erecting inoperability barriers to Microsoft.  However, the only people intentionally (as far as can be discerned) erecting inoperability barriers is the proprietary software companies.

Posted by: Ed at September 19, 2005 03:34 PM

Just an observation:

There is a possible market opening up that Microsoft may be removing itself from. Others may wish to design filters that convert OpenDocuments to word format and vice-versa.

It is already beginning -- see the link below:

http://holloway.co.nz/docvert/

Posted by: Dave Williams at September 19, 2005 04:06 PM

MS could use Oasis standards as an optional for storage of office documents, but chooses not to. The issue should be MS intractability on this point - if MS Office is such a superior product, it seems they would enjoy playing on a level field. If MASS chooses to saves it data in an inferior [sic] format, that's their choice - why won't MS respect and support that choice?

Lastly, is information "free" if it requires a $200 operating sytem and a $500 office suite to access it? If MS is interested in freedom of choice, why doesn't it simply correctly and accurately support the Oasis standards? (But even as I say this sure as I'm sitting here, if MS were to "support" Oasis standards, they would do so in a manner to break them, and make anyone who uses them rue the day they stepped outside MS confines - check MS history with any number of other standards: Java, HTML, XML, SQL, C, C++, ... - perhaps it is better for MASS if MS continues its refusal to support Oasis.)

Posted by: cc young at September 19, 2005 04:23 PM

"I would like to know how the state will ensure that its residents, and not just its workers, will have access to state documents in the future, given that only a tiny minority of residents currently have OpenOffice applications on their computers."

The same way many government agencies and corporations do now with pdf files: by linking to the appropriate program. If it is too cumbersome, someone can develop a lightweight program specifically for the job.

Posted by: ordaj at September 19, 2005 04:35 PM

To speak to the concern about reading state documents, I would suggest that's why the Commonwealth is also supporting the ubiquitous PDF (which is an ISO standard and freely licensed and widely implemented by multiple sources). One can use ODF as the internal working format, and PDF as the external publishing format.

Posted by: stephe at September 19, 2005 07:17 PM

The Office 12 XML format will be introduced into older version of Office as well, free of charge. That ensures free use of XML without additional investments, for those already using Microsoft Office (like the State of Massachusetts).

Tim, in the past, Microsoft's track record on open standards hasn't been great, no argument there. But you can see for yourself the document is well formed, and much easier to create using external tools than any other XML document standard. According to Microsoft legalese, anybody can commercialize any kind of software that uses this format without requiring any kind of licence or approval from Microsoft.

cc young, it makes sense for Microsoft to use their own format that provides them with much more freedom to innovate away from other solutions. Isn't that what business does?

When it comes to cost for home use, there can be a debate. It seems to me that your computer probably came with an OS, and that the Word viewer is a free download. But sure, in general, Microsoft chooses the proprietary code path where you pay for software, and people who do not agree fortunately have alternatives now.

When it comes to corporate software (the primary market for Office), then the total cost of ownership is different. Special tools exist to manage large farms of PC's, and that helps to drive cost down. The purchase cost is actually not the big spending issue in companies, migration is the big issue. Moreover, work done in the past to integrate line-of-business software heavily favors Microsoft Office over open source alternatives. That may change in the future, though I wouldn't hold my breath.

In any case, does it matter for the citizens of Massachusetts? I bet it won't take very long after the launch of Office 12 before you see free in-browser editors for the new XML format, created as components to be used on your own web page.

On the other hand, Microsoft hasn't said much so far about including the ODF format under the "Save As" export feature. The more people ask for it, the more likely the feature may show up. You can get to the team directly here.

Posted by: Filip Verhaeghe at September 20, 2005 01:10 PM

The application you need to open the document you downloaded is winzip. Inside you will find a number of files including the content in xml, which is plain text.

Regards,
Frank Ranner

Posted by: Frank Ranner at September 20, 2005 10:57 PM

http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/ip/format/xmlpatentlicense.asp

"By including the above notice in a Licensed Implementation, you will be deemed to have accepted the terms and conditions of this license. You are not licensed to distribute a Licensed Implementation under license terms and conditions that prohibit the terms and conditions of this license.



You are not licensed to sublicense or transfer your rights."


As you can see for people Who use Linux and openoffice like me I would have to obtain a seperate license to implement the reading of their format. and same goes for every person using any thing except Office which runs only on Windows.

I as a individual who may want to conduct business with the State of Mass. Would not be able to because of the text in bold above.

Posted by: B.Moore at September 21, 2005 01:13 AM

The original piece contained a phrase

>>> I was unable to open [the ODF file] with any application I have.

Thus spoken, author immediately proceeeds to

>>> But despite my personal qualms, I think Massachusetts is doing the right thing

Well, how does he expect people in Mass to read these files once the "right" thing is done?

Posted by: Vadim at September 21, 2005 04:20 AM

Word can save in .rtf and .txt. It would be simple for Word to provide for export to .pdf or .odt to meet the Massachusetts standard.

Both Wordperfect and Openoffice.org provide the capability to export to .pdf. If Wordperfect develops export to .odt it will meet both of the Massachusetts standards.

Word does not meet the Massachusetts standard because it choses not to. Word is free to do this just as Massachusetts is free to require .odt and .pdf.

Posted by: rich at September 21, 2005 09:57 AM

The OpenOffice.org v2 beta includes a web browser plugin for its file formats. Other web technologies such as java and XSLT could also be used for viewing and printing. And of course MA has already identified PDF for viewing and printing. So the question about how citizens will have access to information in opendocument formats is not too troubling. The bigger question has to do with the citizens' acceptance of the formats for modifying and creating documents. I think that widespread sharing of resources like theopencd.org will go further than installation links will.

Posted by: James Stansell at September 22, 2005 02:28 PM

A couple of points.

In the first paragraph you incorrectly state that Massachusetts is introducing a file format that would "effectively require state agencies to abandon Microsoft Office", also stating that OpenDocument is incompatible with MS Office.

Mass. is doing no such thing. There is more than enough time for MS to implement support for the OpenDocument format in Office enabling MS to offer it to Mass. In the best interests of fairness, it should be stated instead that "Microsoft is writing itself out of the competition in Mass by refusing to support the OpenDocument format".

Also, I find it interesting to here Microsoft (and Mass) refer to the OpenDocument format as an "immature" standard. OpenDocument has been around for quite a while and the OpenOffice file format on which is has been closely based has been around for more than 5 years. This is hardly immature.

If you want and example of immature, take the new XML file format MS is pushing. It's untried and unavailable for testing as we speak. Not exactly the sort of "mature" standard MS is promoting it as. And while OpenDocument hasn't been around for more than a year, it's predecessor (again, on which it is closely based) has been around quite a while. MS XML on the other hand has no predecessor and it completely untried.

Finally, and liking points one and two, MS has had five years to introduce support for the OpenOffice and OpenDocument file formats into Office. Even if they hadn't released it, they could have done this as 'insurance' for when a large government or business body finally got standards and decided to standardize on a true standard, and not a defacto controlled by a single organisation. So MS hasn't really got anyone but themselves to blame.

Posted by: Rodd Clarkson at September 22, 2005 11:24 PM

It has been said a few times that migrating all those old Word Perfect and Office documents into Open Document would be hard - yet somehow migrating them all into Office12's new format is taken as being easy or irrelevant. Why should this be so? Word itself does not have a perfect record of being compatible with files saved by its older versions.

If the existing files are not converted to Office12, then we'll have to hope that import filters for them are available for a long time. I have more faith in import filters remaining available in OpenOffice because the filter code is published as open source. I wouldn't be surprised if one day Office 13 or 14 or later drops support for these old files.


Most people have access to a PDF viewer. OpenOffice can export to PDF in a single button. I can't find this functionality in Microsoft Office. Open Office is freely available for many operating systems, yet I can't get Microsoft Office for my choice of operating system.


I'd expect third party OpenDocument viewers and tools to come about with just as much, if not more chance, than the browser compatible editor promised by Filip Verhaeghe above (and would that be tied to Internet Explorer?)


Microsoft (and I suggest Filip Verhaeghe) have a vested interest in this matter as a government that standardises on their products will tie people they communicate with to these products.

This becomes especially true with all the Digital Restrictions Managemenent added in - restrictions that if anything run counter to the stated goal of documents being easily available far into the future. Restrictions that could cause a single point of failure in an emergency should the licensing server become unavailable.

Is Microsoft XML easy to manipulate once it's been wrapped up in all of those extra layers?

Posted by: Richard at September 23, 2005 07:13 AM

"As a test, I downloaded a document in the
 Open Document Format from the state's web site.
 I was unable to open it with any application I
 have. I would like to know how the state will 
ensure that its residents, and not just its 
workers, will have access to state documents in 
the future, given that only a tiny minority of 
residents currently have OpenOffice applications 
on their computers."

Maybe Microsoft should stop being petty and add a filter to load/save these OpenDocuments?!. It's not as if they are being told to make it their primary format! Microsofts problem is that as much as they like to tell themselves and the public that the various flavours of Office are the best packages in the world there are alternatives that can be as good for what people need. Not everyone needs all singing and dancing macros/embedded video/audio etc. Some offices just want to create a document and print it out. Microsoft know this could cause some people to defect to openoffice/staroffice and adding this filter would make it just that little bit easier to take that leap.

On a second note in microsoft's letter they state that the only application that currently uses opendoc is OpenOffice 2 which is still in beta..Just out of interest how many applications are available (& supported) support Microsoft's XML format?

Mark.

Posted by: Mark at September 23, 2005 09:21 AM

Someone commented that maybe Filip Verhaeghe has a vested interest in Microsoft Office. The Filip Verhaeghe link (in his post) points to self-star.com. A blog called "The Informed CIO" at self-star.com has an interesting article on Sep 25th, about Microsoft Windows and Office over thin clients. You can find it at http://self-star.blogspot.com/ as of 26 Sep 3:34am America/NewYork time.

Anyone questioning Filip's vendor allegiences may be interested in a quote from the above-mentioned blog:

"When we compare Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X and Linux, we can see that Windows is the most business oriented application platform. It is easiest platform to manage a farm of PC centrally is Microsoft Windows."

My experience prevents me from accepting these claims without significant qualification, especially with respect to remote management. I expect that Filip has significant business interest in pushing Microsoft solutions.

Posted by: Paul Komarek at September 26, 2005 03:45 AM

Filip Verhaeghe wrote:

> ...exlusively based on XML...


Filip, repeating "XML" as mantra, you miss the point. Completely.


XML defines syntax. But by no mean it does defines semantics. Syntax parsing is 1% of programm code - 99% is the handling of semantics.


It is semantics, not syntax, which defines look and behaviour of document. Good standards always concentrates on semantics, not syntax. Syntax one can easily define in many ways, thou to define semantics, standards has to go into lengthy descriptions given in unreliable human language. That's the sole purpose of standards.


Has M$ ever followed single standard - even it's own standard? It is even easier in XML change semantics w/o redefining syntax) that's actually one of its advantages) so XML improves nothing on compatibility side. M$ remains in control of everything. XML gives everything name, but knowing name of something, doesn't reveal its meaning.


And XML schemas can be well incompatible with each other - just like one of M$ and one of OASIS. So what will keep M$ from innovating further and breaking file format compatibility again - as it did always in past?


XML solves nothing. If company has no record of complying with standards - but even more so abusing them - who would ever beleive it?

Posted by: Ihar `Philips` Filipau at September 26, 2005 09:53 AM

Well, I guess siding with Microsoft isn't the most popular position. Before I begin trying to make some points, please take into account that I am talking about Office 12, its legal license, and its abilities. Arguments of some people appear to apply to Office 2003 or earlier, which was not what I was talking about (as I did mention). So here goes.

Ihar Filipau, I’m not sure if you have looked at the format, but it is pretty easy and it has well defined and easy to use semantics. On my blog I created a link to the actual format.

I wonder, when you complain about Microsoft’s choice, did you consider the alternative approach? What if Microsoft chose ODF as its standard format? Would you be happy? Remember, Microsoft has a long history of embrace and extend. What if they said that they will standardize on Open Document, but there are just a few features missing that they would add. I’m pretty sure the community would be really upset. In fact, Microsoft is investigating how to export/import ODF. It turns out that so far, the result isn’t stellar because ODF doesn’t have the exact same feature set. Maybe they can still solve it, but just maybe Microsoft would have been tempted to add a few missing features to ODF.

Fortunately for all of us, Microsoft chose to introduce its own XML standard, which it can freely evolve without touching ODF. Will there be filters from XDOC (Word 12 XML) to ODF and back? Off course. Microsoft may or may not supply them, but if they don’t, then someone else certainly will deliver them. The only question in my mind is whether it will be natively supported.

It’s really the same thing with PDF. PDF document creation within Microsoft Word has always been available, at the push of a button. In fact, most PDF documents were created using Microsoft Word. The only difference is, within Office 12, PDF will be available natively (and "free" after you pay for Office 12). I’m happy about that, because that is one application less to worry about within the company (I know Adobe Acrobat can do more, but I’m only using the PDF creation feature). So PDF changed from third party supplier to native support. There is a difference, but it doesn’t change the world.

Some wonder if Office 12 XML can be a standard at all if Microsoft proposes or invented it. Is this a real issue? If Office 12 switches over to its XML format, then Microsoft’s format will be the de facto standard, no matter what standards body endorses it. The only real question is whether you are free to use it as you please. The answer appears to be that you are free to use it, as long as you don’t sue Microsoft over it, and as long as you don’t change the standard (or any part of it). That last requirement makes sense if you want it to be a standard. So B.Moore appears to be incorrect when he sees the licensing by Microsoft as a problem to doing business in Massachusetts (or elsewhere). In fact, as far as I can tell, the license is extremely liberal, and perpetual. To quote Microsoft Watch: Licensees will be able to integrate these formats into their servers, applications and business processes "without financial consideration to Microsoft,". Frankly, I believe that Microsoft has a lot to gain, and little to loose, by opening up the format in the widest possible way.

Richard says it may be hard to convert .DOC into .XDOC. This sounds an awful lot like creating fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). I guess that may be fair, since Microsoft certainly has a history of doing the same thing. But conversion of .DOC to .XDOC is a basic ability, and easy enough for Microsoft since they are both Microsoft formats that they can define them to make it easy. Just try this conversion functionality when Office 12 beta comes out (which I hear is soon), you’ll see this is not an issue. Since Office 12 by default saves to XML, and since Microsoft Office is by far the most widely used package around for content creation (at this time), I believe Office 12 will actually give a strong boost to XML as a storage format.

Richard also asks if the XML still be manipulated that easy when Digital Rights Management (DRM) kicks in? I sure hope not. I believe in copyright protection, and if an author wants to restrict the rights to his own text, then
(s)he should be able to do so. By definition, that implies you can’t fiddle with the XML as you please. Incidentally, you also can’t just change PDF once similar restrictions are applied. But if the author does not protect the content, then the easy to change format we have been discussing applies.

How about that Word in a Browser "promise"? Just for the record: it’s not a promise, it is speculation. But if this didn’t happen, that would be amazing. Microsoft has very good reason to provide an online viewer, amongst others to make Office 12 attachments viewable from within their Kahuna project and within Microsoft SharePoint. Microsoft Watch believes Microsoft might itself introduce a write-enabled web-based Office itself as part of its MSN Services. My guess is someone else will do it first, to provide Office 12 compatibility for ondemand office-like services such as http://www.writely.com/, http://www.numsum.com/ and competitors.

Finally, a lot has been said about my vested interest in Microsoft. So here’s full disclosure. Self-Star is a software company that I started and I am proud to say is on a steep growth path. Self-Star’s core product is Dr. Enterprise, a solution that allows organizations to understand their business processes, and to manage the effectiveness of processes and operations. Our customers are usually large corporations. So, I approach the scene mostly from a business point of view (as opposed to the individual consumer). Nevertheless, it is my job to stay on top of the IT business, including understanding Microsoft’s and Google’s strategies and technologies (amongst others).

Because Self-Star comes from a business angle, we look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) of technology. We want to respond quickly to customer demands, so quick development and quick maintenance, leading to frequent releases with minimal customer installation/migration time and effort. We want to connect to information sources as diverse as Siebel, SAP, Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL, Enterprise busses, Web services, Excel sheets, flat files, web pages, you name it… And our solution needs to scale to any size of company. I know some end-users think TCO is just a business buzzword that covers complete nonsense, because what could be cheaper than royalty free software, but this is not a business reality. The actual purchase cost of software (which we must pay to Microsoft from our profits if we use their technologies) is only part of the total cost of developing, maintaining and selling the application. When we sell Dr. Enterprise to a customer, that customer may expect to win back more than the money (s)he invested within 6 months of operational use (the famous "return on investment", ROI). So cost is a very relative term. For us, using royalty-free software to build our solution on is great but it must also do all of the above.

After careful evaluation, we have selected Microsoft as our prime technology supplier. Does that mean we have a vested interest in Microsoft? We are free to choose any technology we want, so we choose on merit, which is to say on technical ability, on ease of use and on what technology allows us to maximize profits. Feel free to disagree on whether Microsoft has the best technology for our (or your) business or private use. You may have different needs, and make different choices. Also, please don’t write to convince me of a particular technology, as I do follow open-source technologies as closely as I follow commercial solutions. I also do not believe that is the purpose of Nick’s blog.

I’m following Nick’s "digital renderings" because I am a proponent of on demand (utility computing) model, although I have not yet met a CIO that was willing to let the critical business insights our products provide go beyond the corporate firewall. So right now, we typically install our on-demand solution inside the company itself. By the way, that’s also how salesforce.com says it captures large accounts, so I guess they must be dealing with the same issues for large companies.

Posted by: Filip Verhaeghe at November 4, 2005 02:27 PM

This interesting discussion keeps unfolding on the net. I just wanted to make to my final addition with these interesting related blogs. David Berlind writes about “MS-Office schema not as open source friendly as Microsoft says it is”, and “Politics and the perversion of standards”. Definitely worth reading. But if you can find it in your heart, also read what Brian Jones (Microsoft’s guy on Office XML formats) has already said on the subject.

There is a common theme in what they are saying: with the current license from Microsoft, you can do everything (including open source) except GPL:

“The GPL says that there can’t be a requirement that you give credit to the author of the program (something called “attribution”). The GPL also says that you can’t put a limitation on sublicensing IP rights. As Craig says, the Microsoft license has both these requirements, so it is not compatible with the GPL.”

Notice that OpenOffice is not distributed under GPL. Jones adds

“all competitors that I'm aware of have no problems using the formats. OpenOffice already has support for the Word 2003 XML schemas.”

Frankly, the Microsoft argument that you need Office because of support for disabled sounds like bogus to me, as David Berlind pointed out. But the argument that ODF is the only open standard, and Microsoft XML is not an open standard, sounds like nonsense to me too. There is certainly no reason to state that documents saved in Office 12 XML will not be viewable in the long run. I would argue for the opposite, exactly because Office has that 95% market share. But assuming both formats are open XML formats (with or without credits to be given), and both formats really suit the purpose of long term storage, shouldn't the discussion be about customer value? Office 12 is a great product that leaps ahead of the competition. OpenOffice does a great job at mimicking, but has catching up to do. Since people will use OpenOffice at home, being able to open and save documents to ODF from within Office 12 would be nice. That’s a feature that I believe will be available sooner rather than later (even if it is as a plug-in). I also hope OpenOffice implements the Office 12 format, like it did with the old XML format. That is what competition is all about. So why were we having this discussion?

I believe it was because Nick said:

Microsoft is, in essence, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo. It says that "Commonwealth agencies should be allowed to choose the technologies that best suit their needs, particularly in a context where, as here, multiple open and competing technologies/formats are available and supported in the marketplace, with many document conversion utilities already available and with no licensing barriers to future conversion software." [...] The state has determined that the status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. It believes that the lack of standardization in technology and data is undermining its ability to do its work effectively on behalf of its citizens.

It strikes me that “status quo” (i.e. no additional legislation) is largely misunderstood. In software industry, it actually means “accelerating the move forward toward open standards based on XML and radical innovations toward easier to use software” (as I explain in blog posting of mine). Which is, I'll readily admit, seriously to Microsoft's advantage. With their research capability combined with they innovation purchase capability, they can keep pushing the work efficiency of citizens up. But there is also a lot of merit in OpenOffice trying to keep up. It makes research available for the home market where Microsoft never sold a lot. It also pushes Microsoft to add even more value for businesses and think of better priced options for home users.

Posted by: Filip Verhaeghe at November 8, 2005 07:17 AM

Thank you, and everyone who contributed to the creation of this website.

Posted by: Devid at January 16, 2006 05:21 PM

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