By webmink on Mar 07, 2006
I have been watching Microsoft now for a very long time. I'm struck by the way one of their characteristic tactics has held firm for the whole time I have been watching. The tactic? When Microsoft knows it's in the wrong, it attacks with its weaknesses - has done for years. It's what I gather psychologists call projection - superimposing your own faults on others. There are some excellent examples in their response to the ODF Alliance. My sources here are reports of conversations with two brilliant Microsoft debaters, Alan Yates and Jason Matusow. Let's see how the technique works, and what we can learn of Microsoft's true fears by observing it.
- Jason "told The Register Tuesday IBM and Sun Microsystems have an economic agenda in advancing ODF".\*
- Of course all the companies involved have business-related agendas. Two points to note:
- They may try to imply otherwise by attacking the Alliance this way, but Microsoft has a clear economic agenda in opposing a truly open standard; protection of their monopoly on desktop document software.
- Microsoft is also essentially alone in its advocacy of Office 12 XML - the other participants at Ecma are either MS Office bond slaves1 like Apple and Intel or organisations like the British Library who want to make the impact of Microsoft's products on their archives as small as possible and are also connected to ODF. Describing the Alliance as just Sun and IBM ignores the breathtaking breadth of the membership but frames the debate nicely for Jason and Alan.
- The Alliance is "advancing ODF as an 'exclusive standard.'"\* (Alan Yates also used this term so it's clearly in the speaking points I saw Anders using in Copenhagen.)
- Microsoft is desperate to nip this ODF uprising in the bud. They are determined they won't support ODF in Office 12, because to do so both validates the standard and provides their customers with a way out of the roach motel ("your data can check in but it can't check out"). They want to exclusively support MS Office 12 XML and are pulling out all the stops to get it rubber-stamped as a "standard" in order to counter the clear direction in Europe and elsewhere towards standards. In other words, Microsoft wants MS Office 12 XML Format to be the de facto exclusive standard, and in their own products it will be the exclusive standard.
- "The alliance is an effort to push an economic agenda with a competing product," Matusow said.\*
- Microsoft's product is not even released yet, and will be the only one supporting MS Office 12 XML for a significant time. It suits them to pretend that this is all about OpenOffice.org but ODF is actually already widely supported.
- In IT Wire, we read "While we await the release of Microsoft Office 2007, promised to hit our shelves before the end of 2006, Yates dismisses open source rival Open Office.org 2.0 as being 10 years out of date."
- The weakness here apart from the previous point? Well, Microsoft itself has found its customers are not impressed by all the bloat added since Office 97, and the only real reason for moving for maybe 80% of its customers is that it's at the end of its support life and new copies can't be purchased. Microsoft is even trying to bully and shame its own customers into the "upgrade", calling them "dinosaurs" in the blanket advertising of London I saw yesterday. The truth is that, for the majority of users, the innovation point has moved elsewhere - the strengths of software supporting ODF include global localisability (that's OpenOffice.org), portal usage (IBM Workplace), online editing (Writely), Linux support (KOffice and OpenOffice.org). Microsoft has none of these features, which are the ones the future wants. It's still stuck in WinThink.
- Alan Yates ... accused the alliance ... of wanting to push the ODF as an "exclusive" standard to the detriment of all others, rather than enabling choice among formats like PDF from Adobe, Microsoft's OpenXML and HTML.\*
- As well as being frankly untrue (OpenDocument only standardises editable formats and in fact complements PDF and HTML), it turns out that Microsoft intends to attack both PDF and HTML in its forthcoming Windows release. Vista includes XAML, intended to move beyond HTML, and XPS, intended to replace PDF.
- "So we are meeting the requirements of backward compatibility with all of the billions of documents that are in previous Office versions," [Yates] said.\*
- There's a non-sequitur here. There is no important sense in which any new XML-based format can be "compatible" with previous binary file formats2. It's applications that are compatible with the old formats. And it turns out that all the applications that support ODF are also compatible with .DOC files3. Microsoft's weakness is that it faces a break with the lock-in to date. Office 12 has a new user interface, demanding extensive user training. Office 12 has a new file format, requiring a format conversion of key records. For the first time in a decade, customers are faced with a genuine opportunity to slip the surly bonds and Microsoft is terrified that any percentage might do so. Maybe ODF is presenting them with "Innovator's Dilemma"-style disruption?
Sum of All Fears
So what do we learn about Microsoft by analysing their attacks on the ODF Alliance?
- Microsoft's worried about it's huge Office revenues, possibly their most important cash cow and most significant lock-in mechanism.
- They are increasingly isolated in opposing ODF (the ODF Alliance is now approaching 100 members, in a time span equivalent to a finger-snap).
- They want MS Office 12 to be the exclusive format used on the computers they control through their monopoly.
- They are concerned about how great a lead ODF has in both application support and mindshare.
- They are worried that they are missing the new imperatives of the world that open source and web-hosted applications epitomise.
- They are worried by the way HTML and PDF offer vendor independence and intend to attack both in Vista.
- They are worried that their "dinosaurs" (a.k.a. their customer base) won't see value in Vista and Office 12 and may use the end-of-support of previous products as an opportunity to migrate to the new world, or just stick with what they are using because it's working.
So much for psychology 101. These Microsoft arguments are advanced sophistry at its best. I hope you're enjoying watching the masters at work.
- I've taken some heat in the comments for describing Apple in particular this way. Note that I am not asserting this globally; obviously Apple makes Microsoft's life miserable as they deliver a superior product with taste and skill. But I have personally checked and in both cases the support of TC45 is based mostly on calling-in of favours rather than on any technical merit. I should probably know better than to bait Mac bigots (I am one myself, after all) but this is the way it is this time round.
- Actually, in the realm of the technical there is a way in which a format can be considered less or more suitable for storing the results of file conversion by an application, but it too is a consequence of the capabilities of the program rather than the format. A complex software product is the instantiation of a developer worldview. It's possible for concepts to exist in one worldview that can't be represented in the other easily. In human languages, an example of this would be the Portuguese word saudade, for which there is no equivalent in English and to understand which involves a certain appreciation for fatalism. It's unlikely that a sentence in Portuguese that includes "saudade" would be translated into good English in a way such that the translation of the English back to Portuguese would involve the word "saudade" again.
In Wordstar there was a keystoke that you could insert to tell the word-processor to centre the line in which it appeared at print time. MS Word has no equivalent concept and so is "incompatible" with Wordstar - it can only centre a paragraph. Thus, one might say that .DOC was incompatible with the Wordstar file format that preceded it as, once Word has processed the Wordstar file, the "centre this line" command is lost for ever and reading back the resultant .DOC in a hypothetical version of Wordstar that was able to do so would show no sign of the "centre line" command that had been in the original.
Fortunately, ODF was designed explicitly to be compatible with the worldview of MS Word, according to the designers, so is able to record the concepts representable in .DOC files. Moreover, it's OK with XML to include tags in a file that a program doesn't understand - they can be ignored by the program - so the Wordstar case need not happen; the unsupported character could just be immortalised as a fragent of XML recording the exception.
- No thanks to Microsoft by the way - everyone else has gained compatibility with .DOC the same way the accessibility device vendors have implemented Office support, through hard, miserable reverse engineering. If it turns out that there are any imperfections in the .DOC import by any vendor, it's not their fault. Microsoft continues to benefit from the undocumented state of .DOC even in Office 12 where they would like us to think it's history. That, as I understand it, is part of the recent ECIS complaint to the European Commission.
Updates: Mar 11, added new footnote 1, clarified in first item that everyone has a business agenda.