Microsofts Standards Are No Standards at All

Opinion: Open standards for government documents and Web sites are the only way to make sure that everyone gets the access they need.

Is it too much to ask for governments to offer their services online so that anyone can get to them?

I dont think so.

Some people, though, seem to have a problem with it.

My colleague, David Coursey, for example, said he believes that Massachusetts recent decision to use open-format documents for storage is "a curious one. It seems to be as much about punishing Microsoft as it is [about] the laudable goal of making information more accessible."

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead Contributing Editor David Courseys commentary on Massachusetts document format decision here.

And this is a bad thing?

For as long as I can remember, Microsoft has been trying to set its own standards and formats to lock competitors out of the marketplace.

Its good at it. Its made billions at it.

Even now, when Microsoft owns the word processing field, Microsoft still wont open its formats or use open standards-based formats like OpenOffice.orgs OpenDocument format.

Yes, programs like WordPerfect and OpenOffice can sort of read Microsofts formats. But, as a documents level of formatting increases, these programs ability to render or translate them correctly goes downhill.

Of course, if Microsoft were to open its formats, that wouldnt be a problem, but the Evil Empire hasnt done that in the past and I see no reason to think they will any time soon.

Coursey said he believes this doesnt matter, because Words doc format has become a de facto standard and in 20 years time Microsoft documents will still be easy to open.

Will they now?

In 1985, I was briefly involved as a NASA representative on a NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) committee dealing with long-term data storage. The formats we decided on for storing data were ASCII, which, indeed, almost anything can still read, and EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code).

Ill be surprised if more than one in twenty tech-savvy readers today remember EBCDIC, but it was a major format in its day. Indeed, if you visit NARA today, youll find that our works lives on because a lot of information is still kept in EBCDIC on 9-track magnetic tape and 3480-class magnetic tape cartridges.

Good luck reading that stuff today.

For that matter, try reading a sophisticated Office XP document with Word 2 or 6. Microsofts office formats only look stable and interoperable. They actually change with every version to help make sure you have to buy the next edition of Microsoft Office.

No, formats based on open standards are the only way to go, and I applaud Massachusetts for saying "enough" to Microsoft.

This is not, however, a problem thats limited to Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. Its much bigger and nastier than that.

Next Page: Microsofts way or the highway.