Cod Psychology

Fruit Bats

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Comments:

Apple a Microsoft bondslave? HA! Last I checked, they were competitors. Mac OS X versus Windows - does that sound familiar? How about Quicktime/iTunes versus Windows Media/"Plays for sure"? Or AppleWorks / iWork versus Microsoft Office? Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates? Apple is one of Microsoft's biggest competitors - has been since Day 1. To say Apple is a bondslave to MS is simply not true. In fact, since both Apple and MS agree that the MSO XML file is better - I'm much more inclined to believe it than I am a Sun Employee telling me the StarOffice / OpenOffice.org format is better. (SO and OOo are the only mainstream app that uses ODF - if you can call them mainstream with less than 3% marketshare.) Maybe calling Apple a bondslave has something to do with why Sun won't port StarOffice to Mac - or why the "official" OOo port to Mac sucks so bad. (As compared to something that 2 guys put together called NeoOffice.) Maybe Sun hates Apples more than they hate Microsoft. I don't know - but calling Apple a bondslave of MS is either a baldfaced lie - a gross flash of ignorance - or insanity.

Posted by Chad Smith on March 11, 2006 at 01:09 AM PST #

Hi Chad. You are quite right about them being competitors, but in this specific case Apple is highly dependent on Microsoft for implementation of Office on OS X and can't afford to alienate them, at least not yet. I have it on excellent authority that the decision to join the Ecma group was based not on technical considerations but on Microsoft's needs. The endorser of the move was a very high level marketing guy, not an engineer. Do you have a first-hand source you can cite on this subject?

Corporate politics is a complicated issue. You can get plenty of voices to tell you why ODF is a good format, both technically and politically - you don't have to rely on me (which it seems you don't want to anyway). Office 12 format is a fine format if you happen to be an Office 12 user.

And I hear the anger in your voice. I'm a Mac user too, FWIW. Is this your only issue with my posting?

Posted by Simon Phipps on March 11, 2006 at 01:21 AM PST #

<p align="right">Yes. I am a Mac user - and I don't like someone saying that Apple is MS's lapdog, lacky, or bondslave.

<p align="right">I don't like the fact that Sun is attacking Mac when they won't even support the OS. If you want to stop people from using MSO - give us a choice on Mac. If you want Apple to stop being "dependant on MSO" as you claim - give them StarOffice.

<p align="right">I mean if two volunteer coders can make OpenOffice.org Mac Native in their spare time (NeoOffice)- I don't see why Sun, with its hundreds or thousands of employees and coders can't port StarOffice to Mac.

Posted by Chad Smith on March 11, 2006 at 02:21 AM PST #

Hey Chad - read the page footer. Sun is not attacking Mac. I am personally relaying my personal views on the situation based on personal conversations. You may not like the truth, but in this specific case Apple is supporting Microsoft for political/business reasons. Do you have data to the contrary?

When it comes to NeoOffice - well, if you have ever read my blog before you'll know I hold Patrick in great esteem. Open source is working the way it should - those with the interest do the work. I'm sure Sun, or IBM, or Microsoft could all port OO.o to Mac, or Amiga, or BeOS, but none has a motive to do so. Patrick has a motive and is doing a great job and I personally appreciate his work.

Posted by Simon Phipps on March 11, 2006 at 02:42 AM PST #

Ok - your thread also claims that Sun has no economic interest in ODF support. Hogwash. StarOffice and OpenOffice.org are just about the only programs that support it. Let's look at the list from the link you gave. Most of those are either OOo clones, Linux only (less than 5% of desktops), or have limited support (search / viewer)


\* Abiword
\* eZ publish ???
\* IBM Workplace Documents 2.6+ - OOo clone
\* KOffice - Linux only
\* NeoOffice 1.2 - OOo clone \* OpenOffice.org
\* Scribus - Linux only, import only
\* StarOffice 8 - OOo clone \* TextMaker 2005 - beta and import only
\* Visioo Writer 0.6 - viewer only \* Writely
\* Gnumeric - Linux only, and incomplete support,

I won't even bother listing the search engines that "support" it - it's basically zipped text - why wouldn't they support it? And most of them are only through third-party addon anyway.

So it pretty much is IBM/Sun for ODF versus MS/Apple for MSO XML. Both camps have profit reasons to promote their own pet format.

Posted by Chad Smith on March 11, 2006 at 04:02 AM PST #

You're still angry I was rude to Apple. I'm sorry I have upset you so much that you choose to attack the ODF and OpenOffice in this way.

I did not - repeat, not - claim Sun & IBM have no economic interest, even if that's what Jason Matusow thinks. Please read what I wrote carefully. I am looking beneath Microsoft's statements - their speaking points attack the ODF Alliance members for having "a commercial interest" as if Microsoft doesn't. Obviously IBM & Sun have an interest, although not to make their main revenues from the product (I certainly don't envisage a world where StarOffice has a majority share of the market). Everyone in open source and open standards has an agenda of some kind. Rather, both companies (and many others, over 80 now in the Alliance) want to make sure that Microsoft's monopoly is not leveraged again to prevent others from being able to compete, as well as ensuring that documents created today remain readable in perpetuity by creating a baseline standard.

Concerning diversity, IBM's product is now distant from OO.o, despite them starting from it, and their ODF support is written independently. The wide range of products supporting ODF may have a very small market share (not surprising considering the monopoly they are fighting) but you're wrong to drink the Microsoft kool-aid and believe this is an IBM/Sun thing (for example, Google is now in the game) or that Apple or Intel helping on TC45 represents an endorsement. Intel, for example, is funding an ODF test suite and some OpenOffice developers.

Of course, if we just roll over and accept defeat then both ODF and OpenOffice will be history - though no-one will get to read about it. Personally, I believe ODF is an idea whose time has come and I'm not willing to look at Microsoft's market dominance or some people's anti-corporate hostility and just surrender.

Posted by Simon Phipps on March 11, 2006 at 04:58 AM PST #

Great post Simon... The method of attacking criticism that M$ uses, has been used, and is used, by many others. Nice to see it laid out for people in what I thought was a easy to understand way. In regards to you posts with Chad... As you mention all the stakeholders have reasons for supporting on format over the other. But the important distinction is that ODF will be open to everyone... where Microsoft's format will not truly be. Even if a bunch of companies make billions of dollars implementing ODF, the software user will be able to open THEIR documents with whichever software THEY choose to use. (even 20 years from now) Personally at least... as a business owner I want to be able to access any of my documents in the future and choose which software fit my business needs.. not be forced by file format restrictions. Those documents are life blood of my business. Between seemingly common file corruption when collaborating with Office, and software version induced file incompatibility, I'm making every effort to get away from being tied to one vendor.. whoever they may be. XAML ? Didn't know about that. That's downright scary in it's implications. Thanks for the heads up.

Posted by Roy Pennington on March 11, 2006 at 07:53 AM PST #

Apple needs MS office support to maintain an ability to stay in the office world. This is, as far as I can tell, the reason why they comitted to IE on the Mac instead of Netscape -- Micorsoft seemed to link Office support on the Mac to Apple accepting IE as the standard on the Mac.

Once Netscape was defeated, it seems that Microsoft told Apple that they were killing Mac IE and so Apple was forced to develop Safari. When Apple went public about creating Safari, MS announced the death of IE.

Now they're probably holding Apple hostage again -- If Apple was given the choice of supporting XAML or losing MS Office support for the Mac, I don't think it would take a lot of time to choose.

I think that it is significant that it was a Marketing hack that voiced support for XAML not an engineering hack. Apple is very much an engineering-driven company.

Posted by Stephen Samuel on March 11, 2006 at 11:36 AM PST #

Nice insights, thank you!

Posted by Doug Webb on March 11, 2006 at 12:06 PM PST #

Stephen~ Although I like your over all point, I am inclined to question your order of cause and effect. It seems to me that Apple went with IE around the time Netscape support for the MAC became questionable at best. Apple then pulled out the core code from the Netscape browser and made Safari. Realizing that Apple had a superior product (as usual) Microsoft then does their usual passive aggressive thing of ceasing support for IE. Apple's iTunes becomes more than just a CD player and Quick Time continues to grow in popularity and standards support, and once again are superior products and again MS stops support of Media Player. Now where has Apple's spreadsheet app gone? Probably into hiding so that MS wouldn't drop Office support. And they never came out with a real "Pro" version for the MAC any way. The current Pro version comes with VPC, but that is it. You don't even get the Windows versions of the Office apps that they haven't ported, like the database app. I would agree that MS is holding Apple hostage, or over a barrel anyway. But if MS losses this format war, we may very well gain the Apple Works functionality back because MS bails on Apple anyway. They committed to 5 years on the MAC, but the way they support it, that is only 2 new revisions, if that.

Posted by JP on March 11, 2006 at 02:02 PM PST #

I agree, that members in the 'ODF Alliance' obiously have somehting to gain, otherwise they wouldn't be putting probably millions in to it.

That's business sense, but when you think about the fact that they will still be saving money WHEN OOo and it's fellow ODF programs take off because there will still be competition in the market. Also M$ CAN be 100% ODF compatible, however with the new Office format coming out 3rd parties will have to start again from scratch in building up .doc compliance though backwards enginerring the format. Giving M$ more of a chance to state that we NEED M$ Office if we want to communicate with eachother successfully. Surely allowing that is maddness. It's not just businesses. If a file needs to be taken home to be worked on then another copy will be required at home linning Gates's pockets even more, and locking people in yet again.

I'm probably relitivle new to OOo I've only been using it a couple of years. The only problem I have with it is the database app 'Base', more than likely because I'm used to Access and I havn't had time (I know even in two years), or the need to sit down and try.

Posted by Lee Bradley on March 12, 2006 at 07:20 AM PST #

Still more unfounded anti-Apple FUD on this thread...

Apple was \*not\* "Forced" to create Safari. They did so because they wanted a Mac-native alternative to IE. IE on Mac always sucked anyway. It was slow, anywhere from a half to a whole release behind IE for Windows - and ugly. They made a better product because they wanted a better product.

As far as MS holding Apple "hostage" with MS Office - they have signed an agreement stating they will continue to develop MSO for Mac for \*at least\* the next 5 years. Legally, there is no way MS could halt MSO for Mac development or production. Apple has no need to fear MS suddenly dropping support for Mac.

Again, I say if you - as a Sun employee, or if Sun - as a company, is truly concerned about the "stranglehold" that the evil "M$" has on its "Bondslave" Apple - RELEASE A STABLE APPLE NATIVE VERSION OF STAROFFICE! If you can't make that decision - talk to someone who can. Don't get on here and bitch about how Remond has a deathgrip on poor widdle Macintosh, and not even offer to help.

If 2 volunteers can do it in their spare time - surely the mighty SUN could get it taken care of in a few months. Heck, StarOffice used to run on Mac OS 9 before Sun even took it over.

Posted by Chad Smith on March 14, 2006 at 11:47 PM PST #

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