It’s always nice to be recognised by your peers in your profession and for the first time ever one of my comments on slashdot has been modded +5 insightful. Warm internal glow.

The article in question is about Microsoft’s release of the binary specification for Office documents, which they have released in response to EU pressure on interoperability, however the open specification “promise” does not make it clear that you definitely can use them as part of any open source implementation and, as PJ of Groklaw points out a promise is very far from a license.

The twisting and turning of MS as they battle to maintain their dominant market position by using strong arm tactics particularly in the Office space is a very interesting one. They continue to try to force through their “Open” OOXML document format as an ISO standard where it fails to meet some quite basic interoperability requirements, what use is “Format paragraph like Word 97″ if you don’t have access to how Word 97 formats a paragraph?

Having a universally accepted office document standard which all makers of office software suites adhere to seems like a logical and sensible thing to have. Accepting the MS binary formats as such falls down because not everyone can implement these, despite the release of the binary format specifications. Accepting the proposed OOXML falls down for the same reason – not everyone can implement it. The short version of MS’ plan is: pretend to have an open specification so we meet regulatory requirements but ensure that our version of Office is the only solution which can correctly implement it.

Document interoperability and an open specification is very important, not just for information exchange now between people using different products but also for the future. Can you guarantee that the document you write and save in Word today will be able to be opened an read in ten years time? If you think the answer is “yes” then try opening a Word 95 document with Word 2007 and see what you get.

There already exists an ISO approved open document format, ODF, for what reason would one need a competing standard that does not meet ISO standards? Or for what reason might you refuse to implement this standard in your software? Monopoly maintenance.

The vote on the OOXML “standard” is coming up soon, so far it has been kept alive by Microsoft carefully stacking the membership of the approving committees with its sympathisers, a known marketing tactic. This is not a question of whether you are an MS Office fanboy or an OpenOffice fanboy or even a WordPerfect user (and there still are plenty out there in the legal profession) – regardless of the platform, document data should be interchangeable. Pinning interchangeability on owning a specific piece of software is fairly clearly, to my mind, a means of reducing competition, engaging in uncompetitive practices and basically trying to maintain a monopoly.

But from a convicted monopolist, what do you expect?

2 Comments to Insightful

  1. Sam Kington says:

    But see also Joel Spolsky’s take on how the byzantine nature of Microsoft’s document formats is unavoidable – and why this might not matter for all intents and purposes.

  2. Jamie Thom says:

    Yes I read that with interest already; I understand the reasons for the formats being so complex – they evolved rather than were intelligently designed, but it still doesn’t alleviate the problem that fundamentally you need Microsoft software to read Microsoft documents.

    Meanwhile the European Union has announced that it is not happy with the specifications and related promises as they still essentially prevent anyone from using the specs to write anything useful.