Bill Gates Is Not the Next Linus Torvalds

Opinion: When determining how to open its formats and share code, Microsoft is responsible to its customers and their real needs, not to open-source believers who want to see the company torn apart.

When people stop whining that Microsoft isnt becoming an open source company, Ill be able to stop writing columns like this one, in which I will (again) patiently explain that people who are expecting Bill Gates to become Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman are bound to be disappointed.

On the other hand, people who want applications that read and write Microsoft Office formats ought to be reasonably happy with what they are getting: A promise from Microsoft not to sue and, eventually, documented file formats endorsed by a standards body. If your requirement is for non-Microsoft applications that support Microsoft formats, the glass is more than half full.

This seems to meet the requirement that Microsoft documents be readable and writeable from things like OpenOffice, StarOffice, and WordPerfect, while still giving Microsoft control of its intellectual property and how it evolves. My understanding, however, is that the Microsoft format could be extended as needed by third parties, though in saying that I feel like Ive waded out into a swamp. This is one of several clarifications Im hoping Microsoft will make over the coming days and months.

That the open source community might have to make an exception to its licensing structure seems a minor inconvenience compared to what they are getting. Microsoft is not required to let people tinker with its formats, but it should allow the open source community to include those formats—as Microsoft has written and will document them—in its products.

Sure, this mixes a little capitalism into the open source mix, but it only reflects the real world where commercial and open source live side-by-side in many enterprises. I dont see how making an exception that allows some "protected" code into open projects really makes a huge difference, unless youre more bent on principle than practicality.

I believe this whole debate has been miscast. The discussion shouldnt be between Microsoft and the open sorcerers, who are unlikely to ever find satisfaction in anything Redmond does, but between Microsoft and its customers.

It is very reasonable for customers, including a certain northeastern commonwealth, to demand that Microsoft store information in formats that are accessible to non-Microsoft software, including free software. They should also demand that Microsoft actually use the formats that are presented as standards, rather than a collection of undocumented extensions and secrets.

In the past, Microsoft has been justifiably criticized for using undocumented APIs that were unavailable to its competitors and, supposedly, gave Microsoft a competitive advantage. Besides a commitment not to sue, Microsoft should also make a commitment to release changes to its document formats even before they are implemented in Microsofts own products.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about Microsofts plan to open its Office formats.

Microsofts commitment to what its calling "openness" should be measured by the ability of other software publishers to create and maintain exact fidelity between files as they are created and moved between Microsoft-compatible applications. If a file created on WordPerfect in a Microsoft format doesnt look "right" when opened in Word or OpenOffice, then openness hasnt been achieved.

That hard part may be where feature implementations differ from product-to-product. There may be ways in which Microsoft and its competitors just wont be compatible, even with the most open of file formats.

The jury is still out on whether Microsoft really has solved the "open document" challenge. I dont think what the company has done so far is enough, especially in that it is hard for customers to understand what the company is offering.

Microsoft must do a better job of explaining both what it has promised and what that promise means to both customers and other software developers.

At the same time, it will be customers who decide when what Microsoft does becomes sufficient to meet their needs, not a bunch of whiners whose greatest dream that of seeing Microsoft torn apart.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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