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.
- The XML component to Masschusetts’ format plans is a good one
- This decision represents, in Microsoft’s eyes, an “extreme narrowing” of eligible formats
- 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
- 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
- This decision would likely result in a cost increase, due to licensing, training, reformatting and compatability issues
- 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
- 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
- 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 😉
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. 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.
 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)