First, the good news. As many of you have seen by now, at 12:01 AM ET last night, Microsoft announced rather extensive – and pretty much open – support for XML based formats for its next gen Office iteration, due next year. Yes, that includes Powerpoint and Excel (but not OneNote, sadly). Indeed, the default save format will be XML. For specifics on the announcement, head on over to the blog of one of the men behind it, Brian Jones.
According to Brian, the format is open, comprehensive, and backward compatible – how could there be bad news? Well, as they say in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, “It’s very nice-a, but we already got one.” As Tim Bray notes, many of the other heavyweights (including Adobe – how did that not get picked up more widely?) in the technology industry have been collaborating on just such an XML based, open format referred to with the unexciting but descriptive moniker Open Document Format.
The question then becomes why did Microsoft invest its time and energy into creating a duplicate format? While conventional wisdom might have us believe that it’s because big bad Redmond is all about lock-in, the open nature of the format undermines that argument (though I’ll concur with Tim Bray on the licensing, giving it a wait and see). Similar to its Metro format, the new formats while not accepting outside contributions or guidance – and therefore not an open standard – can be considered by virtue of their documentation an open format. Lock-in then seems to be an inadequate answer.
So why then did Microsoft pursue the course they did? Via Erwin Tenhumberg, whom you really ought to read if you care about Open Office (and whom I had the pleasure of speaking with on related topics recently), Star Office and the Open Document Format, comes one explanation in Beta News:
When asked why Microsoft did not use the OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) OpenOffice.org XML file format, Paoli answered, “Sun standardized their own. We could have used a format from others and shoehorned in functionality, but our design needs to be different because we have 400 million legacy users. Moving 400 million users to XML is a complex problem.”
“This is a case of reality versus standards – this is reality. We can’t do (support) everything. Where does it stop?” Paoli is one of the authors of the original XML specification. The schemas flag all of the features in the current corresponding Office files formats.
So there’s your answer: legacy users. One certainly can’t discount the numbers and the volume of legacy users that Microsoft Office has, but would the Open Document Format really be inadequate for supporting those users? Well, the only people that really know the answer to that work for Microsoft. But the folks from KOffice, as Erwin points out, don’t seem to think so:
But I definitely think the OpenOffice.org file format was a very good basis for the OASIS format, since it was designed, from the start, as a file format that should be as independent as possible from the design of the application. It reuses standards like XSL/FO, CSS, HTML etc. as much as possible, so the goal is to make the OASIS format another one of those formats, where the application used to edit the document doesn’t matter.
But again, let’s give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt here; ensuring backward compatability for that many users is no doubt a monumental task, and either way the Redmond folks should be given much credit for releasing what on first glance seems to be a real, genuine open format.
Good intentions and such aside, however, if Microsoft really wants to demonstrate that they’re open they’ll go one step further and support the Open Document Format alongside their own non-independent version. Wondering if customers want it? Check out the comments to the original post from Brian Jones.
The objections to such support typically run along the lines of Microsoft has never had to compete on implementation, why would they choose to start now? Well, I reject that argument for a couple of reasons:
- Office is clearly ahead of Open Office at the moment on the usability and feature/function fronts. Sorry OO.o advocates, but as a user of both, Microsoft Office is still out in front. Not by as much as people might think, but enough to easily compete on a level platform basis. I liken it to iTunes; IMO, if iTunes chose to compete on its merits rather than the closed nature of its platform, I’m a believer that it would win nine times out of ten because it’s simply better than alternatives.
- Arguing this point assumes that the uneven playing field of a single, controlled format is sustainable indefinitely. Clearly, Microsoft has controlled the Office format landscape nearly forever, but times, as they say, are a-changin. Governments abroad, in particular, have been exerting increasing pressure on Microsoft to play fair by being more open, and in fact it’s difficult to imagine today’s announcement without some of this governmental pressure.
- The PR win from such support is likely to more than cost justify the effort required to include support for the Open Document Format. Microsoft would all of a sudden be able to play the open card with ease, having by choice (rather than mandate, as could possibly become the case somewhere down the line) decided to support an open, independent document format.
On some level these arguments fly in the face of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset that seems to be prevalent within Microsoft divisions that have generated quarter after quarter after quarter of sustained revenue growth, but I think that that mindset is going to have to change in a world that’s increasingly driven by macro trends like open source and open standards. Are we at the tipping point in the office format equation was a question I debated with a vendor yesterday, and the answer, in my mind, is not yet. But the Open Document Format is still young, and I do think it ultimately has the power to fundamentally alter the context of discussions around office productivity software. Microsoft can be proactive and aggressively compete on that basis now, or they can ignore the demands of governments and ISVs abroad. I know what I’d choose.
P.S. Funniest take on the format announcement? Jeffrey McManus.