How Open Can Microsofts Formats Be?

Opinion: The software giant might convince customers that its formats are sufficiently open for archival purposes, but it is not about to let outside parties exercise any control.

Microsofts decision to submit its Office 12 file formats for adoption as formal standards has the spinmeisters working overtime. Id like to offer my own interpretation: Just because Microsoft is "opening" its formats doesnt mean Redmond has to consider anyone elses opinion about how they evolve.

I say this because Ive seen comments from Microsoft competitors suggesting that they should have a say in the Office 12 formats. To these people I offer a two-word suggestion: Dream on.

There are at least two options for creating a standard. The one most people think about is when a group of companies get together to create a single standard that they all will use. They do this because no single company is capable of creating the necessary technology and imposing it on all the others. That means everyone gets a say in how the standard is created and implemented. Wi-Fi is a good example of this.

But there is another kind of standard, the one that develops when a company is big enough to create the technology and enforce its will on everyone it touches. Microsoft formats are an example of this. Microsoft creates them, and its power in the marketplace turns anything the company does with file formats into standards. These standards have been ad-hoc in the past, but recognition by a standards body would make them official.

Meanwhile, the existing formats have proven themselves open enough that Corel (WordPerfect) and OpenOffice/StarOffice implement them in their own products, allowing their suites to read and write Microsoft-formatted files.

WordPerfect and OpenOffice/StarOffice can use the Microsoft formats but dont have any real say in how they are created, what functions are supported, and how the formats evolve. On the other hand, Microsoft doesnt make compatibility impossible.

Now, Microsoft wants formal recognition that its Office 12 standards are open. Precisely what "open" will mean for these formats remains to be seen. Microsoft has said it wants to open its formats so customers can implement their own XML schemas and have confidence that Microsoft wont pull the rug out from under them sometime in the future. Opening the formats also seems to assure that Microsofts competitors will be able to implement the formats in their own suites without worries of running afoul of Microsofts lawyers.

Is that level of openness enough to quiet Microsofts critics? Surely not, but it may convince a critical mass of customers that Microsoft formats are "safe" for the archival storage of documents. It may also assure public agencies, like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that their documents can be kept in Microsoft formats without endangering future access to them.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about the file format controversy in Massachusetts.

Whatever happens, I expect the Office 12 formats will remain Microsofts to guide and control. Changes to them will be not submitted to a vote of outsiders, though I expect Microsoft to listen to and accept input from the wider community of customers and industry players as the formats evolve.

I dont think that is what open format advocates are looking for. Theyd presumably want regular format summits and a formal adoption process for changes. I dont think its what they will get, so the format battles will continue

Microsofts plan, however, seems to roughly parallel how Adobe handles its Acrobat PDF file format, considered "open" though still under Adobes control.

As to whether Microsoft is seeking standards endorsement because of pressure from OpenDocument supporters, I cant say. Microsoft has been talking about opening its formats for more than a year, but actually seeking standards body approval may have entered the plans only recently. Or maybe it was there all along.

It is as yet unclear what opening the Office 12 formats mean to customers. I dont see a downside, though whether it goes far enough to ease customer concerns wont be known for perhaps a year or more.

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