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Microsoft Office to Support ODF: The Q&A

Breaking with my long-standing tradition of bringing you the news long after it’s broken, I’ve got some early commentary on the news that Microsoft has announced support for the Open Document Format. This analysis was made possible by the folks from Microsoft who were good enough to brief us – Cote and myself – on this news last week. With the advance notice, I’ve had both the opportunity to ask some questions as well as think on the answers I received. The output of that thought process follows, in the Q&A format most of you are probably familiar with by now.

Q: For those of us that haven’t seen the news yet, or have only heard a partial summary, can you recap your understanding of what Microsoft has announced?
A: Certainly. I’ll exclude the PDF portion of the announcement for now to focus strictly on the ODF aspect of the release; if anyone would like further coverage of the PDF news, drop me a line. The news, then, is this: Microsoft is announcing support, via a non-bundled, third party application, for the ISO standard Open Document Format (ODF). To make things more interesting, the third party application is an open source project, governed by the BSD license and hosted externally at Sourceforge.

Q: Interesting. Who is the third party?
A: Well, I asked that question and initially suspected that it might be some of the Novell folks as they would seem to be a good fit, but I was wrong. The third party, as it turns out, is actually three firms – all of whom are operating under the guidance of Microsoft, who is project managing the effort. The firms involved are:

  • Clever Age:
    A French firm that has done work in this area before – and probably the source of early rumors that a French firm would be providing ODF support. The rumor mill was right for once – go figure. Anyhow, they’ll be responsible for much of the development and the actual project maintained at Sourceforge.

  • Dialogika:
    A German firm that has significant visibility into document requirements within EU governmental agencies.

  • Aztecsoft:
    An Indian firm that has apparently been tasked with exhaustively testing the downloadable component.

Q: So there are three separate parties, all of whom are likely to be unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, and all of whom are funded and managed by Microsoft? Aren’t there likely to be issues of trust here? Is this not begging for conspiracy theories?
A: It’s possible, but I think Microsoft’s decision to make the project open source and host it externally at Sourceforge – rather than, say, Codeplex, will calm some of those fears. Not all, perhaps, but a high percentage of them. Transparency can be very helpful, and this external hosting – not to mention the very permissive BSD license – should allow for considerable external oversight and monitoring. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing for everyone involved.

Q: Ok, but why would Microsoft not handle this work itself?
A: Microsoft has maintained fairly consistently that they would not support the format themselves, but were not opposed to seeing others perform that work. In a conversation I had with Microsoft’s Alan Yates in September, here’s what I recorded:

* Microsoft will not be supporting the Open Document Format for some of the reasons listed above, but also because it’s an immature customer base, the difference in technical approaches between their Office Open XML formats and the ODF, and finally because they don’t see what problems they’d be solving by offering such support
* Despite the above, nothing precludes an extension or plugin from being built by a third party to provide such support, although Alan was not aware of any specific efforts in that regard that he could speak to

This announcement obviously indicates that they’ve gone a bit beyond that by funding and managing these efforts, but I suspect the answer one would get from Microsoft is that they’re simply outsourcing what they believe to be a non-strategic feature to third parties – hardly an unheard of activity in this industry. On the other hand, they clearly felt it was important enough to fund so I think that would only be part of the answer. From where I sit, the more complete answer is simple: Microsoft wants to propagate its competing format, and therefore that’s the strategic direction and will command the Office team’s attention and time. At the same time, they do not want to lose access to certain public sector markets, and therefore some support for ODF was in order and not being developed in a timely enough fashion.

Q: That gets to the question of timing, which I suspect is on everyone’s mind: why now? Everything we’ve heard from Microsoft on the subject has indicated that they saw very little demand for the format – what’s changed?
A: I asked this precise question, and the answer essentially distilled to this: demand from the public sector. It’s Microsoft’s contention that they are still not seeing any notable traction or interest for ODF from their enterprise clients, but events within the public sector (e.g. in Belgium, Denmark, France, etc) have led to ODF being an RFP type requirement for many governmental bodies. The achievement of an ISO standard applies here as well, because Microsoft believes that governments that have even a single citizen exchanging documents in ODF would be obligated to serve that citizen given the standardization. ODF support, therefore, became important for one of their larger customer bases, making this announcement a very logical decision. A fait accompli, almost. Having reached the conclusion that ODF is not going away, Microsoft likely felt obliged to support it to guarantee access to the widest possible market.

Q: What about the bundling question – why does Microsoft not just include this in the shipping version of Office?
A: Having been compelled to create the infrastructure within Office to simplify the downloading of PDF componentry – a consequence of Adobe’s (highly) regrettable criticism of Microsoft’s planned PDF support – the ODF bits were a natural fit here. Natural because while it’s been compelled to support the format by demand from one important sector of its customer base, Microsoft is probably not terribly enthused about the format and wants to include at least one barrier to entry between its customers and ODF.

I’m told, however, that the actual procurement of the PDF and ODF bits has been highly streamlined. Users will be able to simply access the functionality via the File menu, rather than having to wander through complicated Office Update sites. So hopefully the barrier to entry, whether it’s ODF or PDF, is low. I’ll test this myself as soon as I can, but for now the functionality as described seems well thought out and executed. One question I didn’t think to ask is whether or not users will be required to have Administrator access to install those components; that’s more important than one might think, having worked at big cos that can be (over)zealous in their restrictions of user rights on the operating system.

Q: Do you think the decision to bundle the technology is related at all to open source licensing questions?
A: Well, undoubtedly the BSD license was chosen for a reason – that reason being BSD’s permissiveness. With that license, unlike, say, the GPL, Microsoft could legally incorporate this code into its product down the line and have no obligations to share anything further or give anything back. But was the bundling approach dictated at all by questions of licensing? While it’s true that both the decision to bundle and the decision to outsource the work probably limits Microsoft’s potential legal liabilities, I don’t really see any obvious, looming reasons for Microsoft to choose that course other than a general cautiousness.

Q: How about specifics on the format support – are all (document, spreadsheet, presentation) supported immediately?
A: No. The various formats will be supported in the order above – document, spreadsheet, then presentation. According to Microsoft, there are technical elements – such as lack of formula specifications in ODF – behind this as much as demand. The timeline should be as follows: the ability to read ODF documents should be available with this announcement, and the ability of Word to write/export to the ODF document format should be available by the end of the year. Following the completion of Word’s functionality, Excel’s next and then Powerpoint.

Q: Is that a reasonable timeframe, in your opinion?
A: I’ve spoken with a great many people familiar with both ODF and MSXML, and a person here and there familiar with both (who were enormously helpful, in case they happen across this), but I have not spoken with anyone familiar with both the Office internals as well as the ODF, so I’m not capable of answering that question. I will say, however, that everyone seems to agree that supporting one format or another is a non-trivial exercise. ODF, while very clean and well documented from all accounts, is slightly more complicated than say, straight text or RTF.

Some might ask whether or not it’s potentially in Microsoft’s best interests that this work proceed slowly, and I’d acknowledge that yes, it probably is, but also point to the fact that the project will be open source. If the work proceeds at a snail’s pace everyone will know, so I’d be surprised if that occurs.

Q: This sounds like a big deal – is it?
A: Yes, I think so. It’s a big deal for all of the interested parties: Microsoft, Microsoft’s competitors, and ODF advocates. At the same time, there’s an important limitation to the support provided.

Q: Let’s get to the limitation in just a minute; let’s take those parties one by one. How is this a big deal for
Microsoft?
A: I have no inside information here, nor would disclose any if I had it, but I have to think that this decision was an excruciating one for Microsoft on several levels. First, it amounts to a tacit admission of demand for ODF, albeit in one particular sector versus the market as a whole. As noted above, Microsoft has been consistent in their claims that demand did not exist. Second, Microsoft is including support for not just an open standard, but a competing open standard that will be provided by an open source project. Think about that for a minute. For all the strides Microsoft has made in the areas of open source and open standards, that’s still likely to be a decision that was unpopular in some quarters. My conclusion, therefore, is that a.) Microsoft was strongly incented to do this by some of its larger public sector customers, and b.) this decision is part of a bigger picture – one that involves DOJ/EU type matters.

I’ll note here, however, as I have previously, that it’s my belief that Microsoft is in a position to compete very effectively soley on the basis of its implementation.

Q: How about Microsoft’s competitors?
A: Well, this is a bittersweet moment for them. For those like Corel that have eschewed ODF support, it’s a matter of minor importance – at least until Microsoft is able to compete in public sector markets that mandate ODF and they are not.

But for those vendors that have touted ODF support as a diffentiator, this is a good news/bad news deal. The good news is that they can and almost certainly will point to Microsoft’s support as validation of further ODF traction and momentum, they will now be competing – at least in theory, remember the limitation – with an Office suite that is frankly the most capable on the market. I’ve said for years that packages like OpenOffice.org are more than good enough for the majority of users, and that’s been validated by our own usage of the product over the past few years; but Microsoft’s suite is better than good enough. I’m interested to see if there’s any fallout from the UI overhaul, but for now Office remains the undisputed champ of the Office arena. This means that commercial packages like StarOffice and Workplace, not to mention open source projects such as Abiword, KOffice, and OpenOffice.org will have to compete more on features and innovation and less on their support for formats such as ODF or PDF.

Q: And what about the ODF advocates?
A: Well, there’s quite a bit of overlap between ODF advocates and Microsoft’s competitors, unsurprisingly, so much of the above holds true here. But for those without a rooting interest in a particular platform, who are merely looking for better document interoperability and interchange, this is good news.

Q: Ok, so what about that limitation? What’s the catch with the ODF support?
A: Well, let’s say that you’re the State of Massachusetts and you’re going ahead with your support for ODF as part of your open standards agenda. If your agenda is pro-open standards, rather than anti-Microsoft, as I believe it is having heard former MA CIO Peter Quinn speak, this is potentially great news. But one would think that for Microsoft Office as an ODF platform to function effectively, you’d have to be able to change the default “Save As” behavior on a system-wide basis.

Otherwise, when one of your workers fired up Word, wrote a memo, and simply clicked Save it would output as either binary Word or MSXML depending on the version. Which would result, I’d think, in chaos particularly in larger institutions. We’ve even had that problem at RedMonk with some of us on Word and some of us on OO.o. Expecting users to remember to manually select “Save As ODF” each time they need to create an ODF document – which in enterprises that mandate ODF will be every time – is not realistic.

As I understand it, however, having queried Microsoft on this (and they should feel free to correct me if I got it wrong) changing the default “Save As” behavior is not possible. Well, technically it’s possible, but not without locking virtually everything else in the File menu down; a solution that is not likely to be acceptable to wide audiences.

This means that while users will in theory be able to consume ODF assets, and eventually author them, the support within Office will be biased towards Microsoft’s own format. While that’s understandable for competitive reasons, it’s less than ideal for customers.

Q: So the question, then, is this: will Microsoft’s current technical approach meet the needs of governments and public sector clients abroad? Or will they focus on its shortcomings? Or, more cynically, do you think that the decisions to embrace ODF were strictly anti-Microsoft and this news, therefore, will be irrelevant?
A: Let’s take that last bit first. I do not believe that interest in ODF is strictly, or even predominantly, anti-Microsoft. Do Microsoft’s competitors have a vested interest in the format as a lever for loosening Microsoft’s grip on customers? Certainly. But I’ve maintained all along that it’s in customer’s best interests that Microsoft compete on the basis of its implementation rather than ownership of the format. Moreover, I think that a Microsoft Office package that supports ODF would be widely adopted, and have had customers confirm that for me. Here’s what I said in November following the ODF Summit:

During the Q&A with Quinn, I asked him specifically whether or not the rumored ODF support in Microsoft Office via a French third party (should that prove true) would make a difference. His reply was clear: absolutely. Contrary to some of the claims you might have seen, this is about supporting a standard, not a particular product or a vendor. Should Microsoft choose to support that standard, they’d be welcome to bid on MA’s business.

So no, I don’t believe that the majority of ODF interested parties – be they public sector or otherwise – will somehow blacklist Office despite its newfound affinity for the ODF.

But as to the question of whether or not Microsoft’s planned delivery will meet customer needs, well, that’s the million dollar question, I think. Multi-million. And frankly, I think it’s too early to say. I highly doubt that these plans have not at least been run by some of Microsoft’s larger public sector customers – Microsoft organizationally seems to place a lot of trust in small focus groups – so I’m sure there are some customers that will be satisfied by this move. As for customers such as MA, presuming they’ve haven’t already been consulted, folks like Andy are in a better position to comment on whether or not this will or will not meet the requirements as set down by groups like ITD.

If you want to begin the process of gauging whether or not it will meet those needs, however, you can start by examining the response Microsoft originally submitted in response to ITD’s RFI here – a response that will obviously have to be updated (link is via the excellent Erwin Tenhumberg).

Q: One last question: do you see this as Microsoft being progressive and meeting customers half way, or doing the bare minimum to compete in important markets?
A: Bit of both, I’d say. I’ve been asking for a while now that Office support ODF alongside its own format, so this news is quite welcome from that perspective. In June of last year, I said:

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.

Here’s how I put it in September:

Q: What would you do if you were in their shoes?
A: I would have thought that was obvious by now: support the ODF. Just as I said when recommending that Microsoft support Firefox, I think there’s a potentially big PR win for Microsoft here. I’ve never argued that they should abandon their Office Open XML formats, nor even that they shouldn’t be the default. But by supporting the ODF as least as an output option, as they do now with RTF, HTML, Windows Write, and WordPerfect, Microsoft could demonstrate quite loudly that they were comfortable competing on strictly on the basis of their Office suite, which is still the most polished.

With that support having been delivered, after a fashion, I’m hardly in a position to complain. Whatever the impetus, Microsoft supporting an open standard – one that’s competitive with their own – is a positive move in my book. I likewise applaud the decision to turn the effort into an open source project, even more one hosted externally. But I do think that Microsoft has carefully throttled the support that they have provided; I can’t see us using the ODF componentry effectively, for instance.

Not without the ability to tell Word that when I say save, I mean ODF, and have that choice persist – until I tell it differently.

Q: Anything else you’d like to mention?
A: No, this thing is long enough already. I’d simply add that I’m open to addressing other questions or comments that folks might have on this news. I’d also suggest that folks watch my del.icio.us links for other reactions to this announcement, as I’m guessing there will be many.

Update:
For those that don’t follow del.icio.us, a couple of initial reactions.

More as they come in.

Categories: In the Headlines.

  • http://jroller.com/page/jaimec Jaime Cardoso

    Stephen, you mentioned the MS Office support of ODF but leaning to support it’s own internal format but, I see another probable problem.
    With this plugin, MS Office will support ODF and, therefore, will not be excluded of the public RFPs that demand ODF support but, will that plugin be able to be integrated in Software distribution platforms like the MS SMS server? Will the patches and upgrades of the MS Office platform respect and not break the mentioned plugin?
    I may be turning into the conspiration theorist here but, will the plugin really be an aceptable choice or will add so much work to the customer that will be unusable (a fact only to be discovered after the purchase is made).
    Conspiration or not, this is not unseen inside MS’s products, just look at the pop3 and IMAP4 implementation in Exchange or the LDAP implementation on A.D. and you’ll see there is a precedent here.

  • http://diveintomark.org/ Mark

    Conspiracy theories aside (for the moment), the fact remains that the current code does nothing of what they claim. It’s an ODF to Word converter, not the other way around.

    http://sourceforge.net/forum/message.php?msg_id=3809617

    “With the first release (0.1 – prototype), you can only convert documents from ODF to OpenXML.”

    According to the roadmap linked from the project’s home page (ONLY AVAILABLE IN .DOC FORMAT, WTF?) they won’t get around to actually exporting to ODF until at least October, with a final version not due until December 30th. Which is suspiciously close to the Massachusetts deadline, but never mind that.

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady stephen o’grady

    Jaime: great questions, and unfortunately i don’t know. i’ll see what i can do about getting answers to them.

    as far as being usable or not, i think the jury’s still out on that one. that is, however, one of the nice things about it being open source and BSD licensed.

    also, it’s not the only plugin under construction.

    Mark: yup, that is one of the limitations: no save/export functionality until the end of the year. i hadn’t considered the MA deadline, but i’m glad you mention it. while i tend to believe it’ll slip, as significant deadlines have a tendency to do, it’s an interesting coincidence, is it not?

  • Eduardo

    Great post, but I disagree that it won’t help Office’s competitors. Remember, most people in organizations use only the simpler functions of Office, ones that OpenOffice duplicates, and at much lower cost. With the ODF converter an organization can move many of its users to OO or some other office suite, and keep only those who really need it on Office. That is the bottem-line reason Microsoft has been resisting this move.

  • http://www.michaeldolan.com Mike Dolan

    Seems to 1) legitimize ODF albeit for a segment and 2) encourage more enterprise customers to watch all the fun play out.

    I would imagine most large MSFT customers are watching this – if you’re a CIO paying MSFT $50M a year in Office license fees… you’re watching this. And while that CIO hasn’t made any moves yet, you can bet they will plan a move. Maybe he’ll never “switch” but the option to switch is so valuable in negotiations…

    Another big implication… anyone who does business with these agencies will have to use ODF.

    My bet is the basic Word plug-in comes soon within a year… and the spreadsheet/presentation capabilities lag… a .. long… long … time.

  • http://blogs.msdn.com/jasonmatusow Jason Matusow

    Good discussion, good question from Jamie Cardoso about the long-term implications. The other part of the announcement today was about the addition of an interoperability add-in so that users can easily get PDF, XPS, and ODF functionality. Granted this is currently slated for 2007 only, but the point is to have that feature built into the product by MS. As we deal with long-term issues around patches and upgrades, that element of the file menu will be treated as part of the product.

    I am not part of the Office team, but am part of the core team working on this project. I will make sure to raise the issue internally so that we are able to address it effectively for customers.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Jason