Why won't Microsoft join existing standards efforts?
By Peter Korn on Dec 03, 2005
Microsoft has stated on numerous occasions that they believe in and support open standards. But from my experience, they do this not by joining existing open standards efforts, but instead by creating entirely new, parallel (and arguably redundant) "open standards" efforts around their own technologies. And often it seems these new standards efforts are around new, untested, and immature technologies that began life as proprietary to Microsoft - introduced into the standards process when a pre-existing open standards effort already exists, and exists around proven and shipping technologies which were developed in the open with lots of input from a variety of expert stakeholders.
What has me scratching my head about this isn't Microsoft's statement that they will submit their "Office Open XML" document format for ISO standardization rather than simply supporting the OASIS Open Document Format that has been accepted by customers like Massachusett and the U.S. Library of Congress and National Archive and Records Administration, and that was developed through an open standards process with experts like the engineers who wrote StarOffice and WordPerfect and Arbortext and KOffice and the major document users at Boeing Corporation and the National Archives of Australia and the Society of Biblical Literature all contributing to it, and that has over 22 applications and tools supporting it. It is entirely clear why Microsoft doesn't want to support ODF: ODF is a threat to the file format lock-in they have on their most profitable business, namely selling Office Suites. Supporting ODF would mean they would have to compete purely on their implementation work on a level playing field - anathama to monopolist Microsoft who prefers to lock customers into their products.
What has me scratching my head is Rob Sinclair's promotion of UI Automation as a cross-platform accessibility standard. In the eWeek article reporter Darryl Taft quotes Rob Sinclair, Director of Accessible Technology Group, as saying "having one accessibility standard would make it easier to innovate across the industry in the accessibility space - and not just on Windows." If it was truly Microsoft's goal to have one accessibility standard that worked everwhere, you would think they would first see if there was an existing standards effort in this space that they could join rather than developing their own. That's what Adobe did a year ago, when it joined the Accessibility working group of the Free Standards Group. Likewise, two years ago, when IBM was interested in a cross-platform standard for accessibility, it joined with Sun to take the existing, cross-platform accessibility API of GNOME and make it an open, international standard.
And like the ODF standard, the open accessibility architecture is already well supported by a host of products. It is a core part of the shipping GNOME desktop (versions 2.4, 2.6, 2.8, 2.10, and the just released 2.12) which is shipping from a number of different UNIX vendors like Sun Solaris and Ubuntu Linux and RedHat Fedora and Novell Linux; and in Spain the Guadalinex and LinEx Linux distributions that are being used in schools by the blind in Andalusia and Extremadura. It is supported by the Java platform, and the Mozilla accessibility project and the Mozilla Firefox browser, and both the StarOffice and OpenOffice.org office suites (and the OpenOffice.org accessibility project), and the Evolution e-mail and calendar tool, and Adobe Reader 7. The KDE desktop is working to support the architecture as well. In fact, the GNOME platform of which this accessibility architecture is a part has been ported to Windows already, and also ported to Macintosh - and both ports include the accessibility architecture and implementation. This open accessibility architecture is also supported by four assistive technologies: the shipping GNOME On-screen Keyboard, the shipping Gnopernicus screen reader/magnifier, the shipping Dasher text-entry alternative, and the in-development Orca scripting screen reader/magnifier project.
In contrast, Microsoft's UI Automation that Microsoft is proposing everyone standardize on isn't shipping yet. The OS it is to be part of isn't shipping yet. No shipping applications support it. No assistive technologies support it. This not-yet-shipping code only runs on one platform (pre-release Windows; not Macintosh, not UNIX). And unlike the GNOME accessibility architecture, UI Automation wasn't developed in an open process where any interested expert could take part - it was developed entirely by one company, and only a handful of folks who had to sign Microsoft Non-disclosure agreements could even see advance copies of it (and even then, weren't allowed to contribute their code to it).
If Microsoft really cared about cross-platform accessibility, you would think that they would work with the existing experts in cross-platform accessibility; and the existing, shipping, tested, proven, open architecture that is already being ported to multiple operating systems.
But perhaps what Microsoft is really interested in is getting articles written in the press about how open they are, about how much they care about accessibility (on multiple platforms no less), about how they are "leading the efforts to promote the advantages of moving the industry toward adopting one accessibility standard". This is perhaps more interesting to them than actually taking part in the successful work already shipping that is accomplishing their stated goals for standardization.
Though it is widely recognized by experts in the disability field like Curtis Chong of the National Federation of the Blind that disability access to Windows "relies heavily upon the unsung and heroic efforts of a handful of small companies whose software must often steal and scrape such information as they can from an operating system and application programs that are designed only incidentally to provide the information they need", and that "whenever Microsoft decides to come out with a new version of Office or Windows, screen access technology developers and the blind community must race to keep up", Microsoft would have everyone believe that they are responsible for the successes of users with disabilities on Windows.
How could Microsoft sustain this illusion if it was widely known that they in fact are well behind the open standards efforts in accessibility; well behind UNIX and Macintosh in delivering a real accessibility architecture? Sinclair's baldfaced statements that "we have implemented this for Windows, and we're making it freely licensable for other platforms"; and further that "we are talking to Linux and Mac folks to get them on board" obscure the reality that GNU/Linux, Solaris, and Macintosh are way ahead in having (and shipping) an accessibility architecture supported by the OS, applications, and assistive technologies.
I guess Microsoft hopes that if they repeat something frequently enough, and loudly enough, it will become accepted as "The Truth[TM]."