Why won't Microsoft join existing standards efforts?

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]."


Peter, I must take what you say with a grain of salt. All of what you say may be true but I have yet to see a linux distribution that uses gnome that has a quick, easy to install interface like Windows does. I have a braille display that I couldn't use under Linux because it is USB. and I've tried a live cd and I put it in my laptop and nothing happened. Until it is very easy to instal and set up gnome, people won't use it. Until I can see a demo of this actually working and working as well as Jaws, I'm skeptical.

Posted by Chris Westbrook on December 03, 2005 at 10:46 PM PST #

Chris - you are correct that we have significant work ahead of us to reach the level of usability and integrated desktop experience in UNIX that we have in Windows (or Macintosh) - both with and without assistive technologies. I touch on this in an earlier blog entry. On the other hand, we should compare apples to apples (as it were): your USB Braille display doesn't work with Windows out of the box either - you need to spend many hunderds of dollars and install additional additional software to get that funcionality (compared to downloading and installing the open source BrlTTY software - significantly harder to do technically, especially for a novice user, but a lot cheaper). In fact, it is this cheaper that makes the UNIX approach very attractive in places like the poor regions of Spain, where it is easier to find the technical expertise to set up and configure everything than it is to come up with over 1,000 Euros to pay for everything for everyone.

Posted by Peter Korn on December 04, 2005 at 02:37 PM PST #

I remember reading an article by Joel Spolsky in his blog a couple of years ago, and in it he mentioned “standards”. The funny bit is he was talking about Oracle resisting standardization efforts for SQL by Microsoft, Sybase, and MySQL (among others) some years ago. His point was that Oracle didn't want standardization because it levels the playing field for all the players, just as you mention in your article. Standards are great if you are a competitor bringing up the rear in your space. From a shareholder/profit margin/bottom line perspective, proprietary tech <strong>seems</strong> like a good bet…but maybe only if you're short sighted. What's annoying is that both perspectives leave out what you would think is the most important perspective: that of the end users.

Posted by Rob R on December 07, 2005 at 01:24 AM PST #

Peter, you are right about Microsoft not wanting an existing standard for documents in the office world.

Microsoft might be greedy, but they're not stupid. They realize that when a customer has a document in an "open" format, they don't have to turn to a specific vendor to read it. The guaranteed market share dwindles as customers have more options.

Look at the operating system field: until Unix was ported to various hardware platforms, you used whatever a specific vendor insisted on. Period. That locked you into their hardware, by making you dependent on their software. Post-Unix, you could buy a Sun or HP or IBM-clone or whatever, run Unix (or a Unix-like entity); Silicon Valley is full of the skeletons of companies that tried to get rich on hardware.

There are exceptions to this: Microsoft and Apple are the biggest examples. Both have specific "hooks" to keep you in their arena. (Microsoft has OS and applications; Apple has that interface, which only runs on its hardware.)

Posted by Jeff Bowles on December 09, 2005 at 08:31 AM PST #

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Peter Korn


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