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Massachusetts / Open Document Format Followup: Q&A

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Although I promised you a summary of what I discussed with Microsoft last Friday, much of it’s already been told – if not discussed. Like CRN’s Paula Rooney, I got the chance to connect with Microsoft’s Alan Yates (GM of Business Strategy for the Information Worker team) for a few minutes, and our conversation more or less mirrored what was reported on there, with the notable exception of the headline. In our 30 minute discussion, Alan and I discussed the decision itself, as well as the lack of support from Microsoft’s for the Open Document format.

As he was when we last met on the Redmond campus for our Shared Source day, Alan was thoughtful and measured in his commentary – despite the fact that there’s a fairly wide gap in our thinking on the subject. He certainly wasn’t “blasting” anyone when I spoke with him. He also expressed admiration for the enthusiasm and passion of some notable contributors to our previous discussions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) in this space – Gary Edwards in particular.

Anyway, let’s get on to the Q&A:

Q: What were the big take aways as far as you’re concerned from you conversation with Alan?
A: Well, with the necessary disclaimer that these are my recorded notes, and I do not in any way, shape or form speak for Microsoft – here’s what I thought was important.

  1. The XML component to Masschusetts’ format plans is a good one
  2. This decision represents, in Microsoft’s eyes, an “extreme narrowing” of eligible formats
  3. The Office 12 file formats are technically superior to the Open Document Format (ODF), providing extensibility for a variety of future technologies like VOIP, etc
  4. The Office 12 file formats, unlike the ODF, provide full fidelity and backwards compatability to the billions of preexisting MS Office documents already out there
  5. This decision would likely result in a cost increase, due to licensing, training, reformatting and compatability issues
  6. The inclusion of another open format rather than open standard in Adobe’s PDF is at least slightly inconsistent with the idea that an open standard is needed in the case of office productivity file formats
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. Lastly, this decision has not been made final yet so there is the potential for a change [although later on Friday CRN quoted MA officials as saying that it was unlikely to do so]

Q: That’s a long list. Let’s see if we can parse that a bit – what points, if any, do you see where Alan was coming from?
A: Well, as I told Alan, there are many areas where we simply will have to agree to disagree, but there are also points I think he has a case. Do I find the inclusion of PDF, for example, a trifle odd, as does Matt Asay? Yes, although I believe it’s more from the lack of a credible, open standard alternative than a disrimination against Microsoft as Matt seems to imply. Likewise, do I believe that this decision is likely to cost Massachusetts more money? Over the short term, absolutely. Migration and training alone are likely to be brutal, costly efforts. The longer term outlook, however, is a much different story.

Q: How so?
A: Well, much of the difficulty in transitioning away from Microsoft products in any case – be they office productivity, messaging, or the operating system – is in (re)training. Microsoft, being near enough to ubiquitous to justify using the term, is familiar to virtualy everyone, while something like OpenOffice.org (OO.o), is familiar to none (relatively speaking). But training is a cost component likely to taper off or at least decline over time, as is document reformatting. So if one can stomach the initial pains associated with such a transition, the longer term prospects are brighter – particularly if the open standards selected allows for more competitive product buying and licensing. If I was r0ml, I’d likely be able to explain this in the language of financial markets, but as it is I haven’t taken a math class since AP Calc in High School šŸ˜‰

Q: Ok, how about areas where you don’t agree with Alan?
A: Well, I’d start with the second point of this being an extreme narrowing, which in turn ties back into the possibility of Microsoft supporting or not supporting the ODF within Office. I don’t believe that, myself. I view the ODF as a format that Microsoft could have, but chose not to – as is their right, to participate in and support. As IBM’s Bob Sutor put it:

“There is nothing preventing Microsoft and others from implementing and supporting the OASIS OpenDocument format. This should not be looked as “against” anyone but rather “for” real open standards created in a community way in standards organizations.”

Matt Asay in the link above seems to want to imply that this is more of an anti-Microsoft decision for Massachusetts than a decision to support openness:

I think the reason is that Massachusetts isn’t worried about openness as a general principle, but rather as a specific defense to Microsoft…I’m not a Microsoft apologist – far from it. But I don’t have any particular mistrust of Redmond, as compared to any other company out there that is driving value for shareholders. Building on a quasi-open format like PDF may well be a better, clean policy bet than that of forcing citizens to buy Microsoft Office (because government documents are published in Microsoft Office’s closed formats).

But let’s call a spade a spade, and not euphemize it with “openness.”

Not having spoken to Masschusetts’ Peter Quinn, I can’t say one way or another, but I do not at all believe that supporting the ODF is anti-Microsoft.

Q: Can you explain that in more detail?
A: Certainly. In our conversation, Alan contended that the ODF is an inferior technical format – which I believe is at the very least debatable – but also defended the Office Open XML formats as being necessary to support backwards compatability. As I’ve said before, I’m willing to accept that argument from the folks from Redmond if only because I can’t disprove it. But accepting that the ODF is not the ideal format for backwards compatability with MS Office formats should not, to me, preclude Microsoft from supporting both. If they want to make the argument that their formats are superior and/or necessary for backwards compatability, I can live with that – but I do not accept them as justifications for not supporting something that customers (the EU, and now Massachusetts) are asking for. That, to me, smacks of what Microsoft’s Dare Obasanjo is talking about here:

A company that is more interested in protecting its market share than one that is trying to improve the lives of its customers by building great software

And although I have a lot of respect for Microsoft’s Mike Champion, neither can I buy the argument that Office can’t be configured to output the ODF; Word has, after all, supported numerous file formats for a number of years.

Q: Reading from the Matt Asay link above, how would you respond to his contention that follows: “I think Massachusetts’ decision solves nothing and contributes little to open source’s success. It may do the opposite by introducing confusion, leading to retrenchment in Microsoft products.”
A: Well, again, I want to stress that Matt’s a very sharp guy with a world of experience in open source, but respectfully, I’d have to disagree. If we leave out the Adobe PDF argument, because there’s no credible open standard analog to PDF that I’m aware of – unlike the Office formats – I think it comes down to two basic options: supporting a standard owned by a single vendor, or by multiple competing vendors. It’s not a matter of what one thinks of Microsoft, or condemning them, it’s more a question of economics over the longer term. A question of having options. In other words, is it likely that you’ll have greater or fewer purchasing options with respect to office productivity applications by going the ODF or the Office Open XML routes? My money is on the former, simply because the open Microsoft format was far more likely to gain major traction in a world without the ODF. What I hope, and I think many customers do as well, is that Microsoft will reverse course and support the ODF, giving Microsoft a piece of that pie and alleviating costly migration costs for customers that prefer the ODF such as Massachusetts. A win/win, in other words.

As for contributing to open source, I don’t agree with that either. How could the situation get worse? At the moment, we have the vast majority of documents being authored in a format that is reproduced imperfectly on open source platforms. Having more documents based on a format supported equally by open source and commercial products alike seems like a net win for open source to me. If the fear is that all of a sudden folks will be passed documents they can’t open in Office, that’s a legitimate concern, but pretty much unavoidable unless one concedes that Microsoft will own the file format indefinitely.

Q: On the question of community in your last answer, could you elaborate on that? We’ve recently read Microsoft Monitor’s analyst Joe Wilcox who said:

Considering the OpenDocument format is only truly supported by OpenOffice 2.0, which isn’t even available yet, I’m at a loss to see how the XML-based format meets the Commonwealth’s goals for openness or backward compatibility. Nobody’s really using the format yet, right? How, uh, open is that?

A: Well, I think this question is more one of timing. The timing, incidentally, doesn’t favor Microsoft’s Office Open XML formats, because that’s certainly not as available as the ODF.[1] But in the case of the ODF, Wilcox is essentially comparing the to-be-phased out Office binary formats to a relatively newly minted ODF. We’ve been using the Open Document Format via the betas of OO.o internally at RedMonk for quite some time, so it’s clearly available. But I suspect Wilcox means available in the commercial sense, and for that I’d point to either IBM’s Workplace which will support the format or Sun’s soon to be release Star Office 8. Besides Workplace, OO.o, and Star Office there are other options such as KOffice for other platforms. And let’s not forget that while they have no plans vis a vis implementation, Adobe’s not exactly opposed to the ODF given that their own resident genius Duane Nickull sits on the ODF TC. Who else might line up in support of the ODF? Potentially a few important players, from what we’re hearing – stay tuned there. In the meantime, a little birdie has told us that Joerg Heilig – longtime Director of Software Engineering for Star Office/OO.o – has been hired by Google, though I have not been able to confirm this.

To put things in perspective, however, does this collective challenge Microsoft’s ISV portfolio at present? No, not even close. Microsoft’s years of market dominance have gained a raft of ISV supporters, and that won’t change any time soon. But I do believe that with the support it’s enjoying in federal and regional governments both here and abroad, not to mention the economic incentives for a variety of players to lessen enterprises’ dependence on Microsoft, we’ll begin to see ODF begin to attract more participants to the current core.

Q: What about the assertion that the ODF isn’t “open?”
A: I’m at a loss on that one. I do believe, unlike many open source and ODF advocates, that Microsoft’s format is open in the sense that it’s documented and available – by my definition it’s an open format, but not an open standard. But I’m not sure how Wilcox is contending that the ODF is not open, given that it’s governed and directed by a community of participants under the auspices of the OASIS standards body. Lack of marketshare != not open, at least in my book.

Q: So net/net, after speaking with Microsoft, do you still believe that Massachusetts made the right decision?
A: I do. I think on an IT level Massachusetts is trading what is likely to be a painful short term experience for a more competitive, more open longer term outlook. As far as citizens go, I’ve seen a few people here and there complaining that Bay State residents will no longer be able to read their official correspondence, which I don’t buy for a second. Setting aside the fact that little in the way of state correspondence should be coming down in Word, Excel and the likes – or at least, it didn’t for me when I lived there for just shy of three years, it’s also a bit naive in my view to assume that every state resident has a copy of the several hundred dollar Office suite. OO.o, on the other hand, can be downloaded for free. Is that ideal? Not at all. The ideal would be for citizens to be able to use their platform of choice to open the documents, whether it’s Microsoft Office or otherwise. But neither would I knock Massachusetts on that point.

Q: What’s next for Microsoft?
A: Well, probably business as usual I’d expect. I’m sure they’ll be lobbying hard to get the position reversed – or maintained, within non-Massachusetts governments – but I think this overall is viewed as a relatively minor setback. If it becomes a trend, then I think we’ll see more definitive action, but not until then. It’s a matter of incentive, remember.

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 Micrsoft 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.

[1] Microsoft’s Brian Jones: “I’m a bit stunned by the overall proposal that was brought forward to the State though as it seems to be a bit short sighted and unnecessarily exclusive. I question why the proposal has this exclusivity given the fact that there has been no thorough research into the open XML formats for Office 12. The reason I say that there hasn’t been thorough research is that we won’t have our first Beta for another couple months, so I doubt they could have looked into it much.” (link)

6 comments

  1. "neither can I buy the argument that Office can't be configured to output the ODF"

    I was referring to the Office 2003 (Professional version's) capability to be *configured* to output data that matches a particular W3C Schema. Since ODF is not, as I understand it anyway, defined in terms of W3C Schema but in terms of RELAX NG, that is not technically possible. No one disputes that some future version of (or service pack to, or plugin for) MS Office could be *programmed* to support ODF. It might even be possible to devise a W3C schema that is equivalent to the RELAX NG ODF schema so that Office 2003 could be "configured" to support ODF, but I don't know about that.

    "Q: What about the assertion that the ODF isn't "open?"
    A: I'm at a loss on that one"

    It is certainly a openly published SPECIFCATION from an organization that calls it a "standard". I think the assertion is that it is not a real industry standard, because it is not the basis for data interoperability in any real real industry today. It may become one, certainly, we shall see. If and when that happens, I for one would agree that MS Office should support it as an input/output format option.

    OASIS not a legally recognized standards organization (neither is IETF or W3C); it is a place where parties wishing to create interoperable specs can come together to do so. It has produced a long list of "standards" (see http://www.oasis-open.org/specs/index.php), many of which are not widely supported or are not implemented in a way that provides real interoperability. The way one distinguishes those specs-which-OASIS-calls-standards from real-world industry standards is to look at what industries do, not what OASIS says. Let's see what real industries do … they may adopt ODF, or they may ignore it.

    My position (deep down in the bowels of MS and not associated with Office) is that Massachusetts could achieve its stated goals by endorsing a core set of XML technologies rather than a specific XML vocabulary. That would provide long-term usability of the documents, interoperability across a wide variety of platforms and applications, a pragmatic "right tool for the job" rather than "one size fits all" mindset [1], and most importantly would allow graceful evolution – let different tools and committees do their best to apply best practices as we learn them, not lock them into one set of experts' opinions vintage 2004.

    [1] For example, the OASIS DocBook format http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/tc_home.php?… really is a well-established industry standard for complex technical documents in XML. Where does an "office" document leave off and a "technical document" begin?

  2. Your notes about Alan's words kind of remind me soem Portuguese Elections for Government. The (then) oposition party main message was that "The Government doesn't Govern" with is a statement that get's in the ear and is very hard to dismiss but, truth is that doesn't really say anything.
    The same way, Microsoft's position on this subject lacks substance.
    Mike your point of "legally recognized standards organizations" may be a very interesting one. I'll call all the lawyers I know to see if they want to participate in that discussion.
    What's being discussed with this policy is if the documents I make should prevent me to change the tool I work with.
    Yes, backwords compatibility is important but, let's face it, acording to Balmer, Microsoft is really interested in stoping piracy so, is it expectable (or even right) to force people to pay for an MS Office licence (and windows, and an anti virus and all the stuff you need with Windows) just to be able to read the government's published documents that should be freely accessible when there is another way to do it? I think not.
    But, anyway, is that a real issue? We all know that old MS Office documents will have to be migrated to the new MS-XML format and, Microsoft tells us that ODF will not have all the requirements to ensure backwords compatibility but, they expect us to blindly trust them and that we don't really need to know what exactly fails in ODF. As an OO.org user, I'd be interested in such a limitation of ODF. Is there some substance to that claim?
    Also, now, Microsoft tells us that this new format will be much better than ODF. I'll get back to this point but, what I haven't saw yet was some assurances that MS would keep the same format in Office 13 and 14. It's not like it's unseen from MS to change formats in Office when they know the sales of the new product are below expectations (office 97 anyone?)
    But, anyway, the assumption that the new format will be better than the ODF just makes me laugh. We're talking about a company that, said the same thing about LDAP and came up with AD, that said the same thing about POP and IMAP and came up with MAPI, that said the same thing about an inode structure and came out with FAT and, then NTFS. Consistently, Microsoft atacked the Open things in the world and came up with proprietary solutions that were consistently inferior.
    Stephen, I know I'm talking about your interpretation of Alan Yates' words but, truth to tell, there's nothing new in this. Same strategy of old, same choices of old, same lack of substance of old

  3. Mike: it may very well be that i'm being obtuse, but is the claim essentially that on the basis of the schema disparity between the two formats, that the outputting of ODF cannot be accomplished? because i just can't see how there's not a work around. if i'm mistaken, though, i'd love to be educated. i appreciate the difficulties involved, but surely where there's a will there's a way.

    on the ODF front, you're essentially claiming that it is in fact open, but not really a standard as yet given the lack of truly widespread adoption? i can see that argument; i don't buy it myself, but i could probably make a case for it were i so inclined.

    lastly, on the "endorsing a core set of XML technologies rather than a specific XML vocabulary" argument, what does that look like in practice. at some level, doesn't an office productivity file format have to be chosen and agreed upon? what's the alternative? permitting and handling both?

    Jaime: given the difficulties we've had with OO.o and SO translating a limited set of our MS documents, i'm willing to buy the argument that the ODF will indeed have backwards compatability issues with older Office docs. the question of which documents and how many is one that would need to be answered individually. the next question is whether or not the document features (nested tables, etc) that ODF has trouble with are actually necessary.

    as for it being better, again i think it's a relative term, and we need to ask: better for what? better for Microsoft users, or better for everyone? i would not be surprised at all if the Office Open XML formats are indeed better for Office users, but that's part of the problem, IMO.

  4. Stephen. I could also take for Granted MS word and find myself a justification on why ODF can't be used due to backwords compatibility but, truth is either Microsoft doesn't care about an uniformization of Office File Formats and, so it should assume it's position or they care and, they have to say exactlly what's lacking in this format.
    Those inuendos, partial truthes and generic claims may very well work out with people that don't have the technical background to understand the issues involved but, it takes some nerve (IMO) to simply say "it can't be done" and expect the all world to bow before them.
    I just ask one little thing from Microsoft: Do what every 14 Year old student has to do in school (be specific and back your claims with facts). A valid answer would have been "it's a corporate secret" but, repeating myself, "vagueness" isn't a valid answer.

  5. "I do believe, unlike many open source and ODF advocates, that Microsoft's format is open in the sense that it's documented and available – by my definition it's an open format, but not an open standard."

    Thank you very much. Please email me a copy of the open formats for MSFT's Word .DOC files.

  6. tough to tell if you're being snarky or not, Jack, but if it's a genuine request you'll have to wait for the forthcoming beta. meantime, i suggest perusing Brian Jones blogs for examples.
    http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/default.aspx

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