Playing the Standards Game the Microsoft Way

Opinion: Don't believe for one second that Microsoft is actually "supporting" ODF.

The headline reads, "Microsoft Bows to Pressure to Interoperate with ODF." Oh no, Microsoft isnt. The Redmond crew has an entirely different agenda for "supporting" the OpenDocument Format with its own Open XML Translator.

Its not even news, actually, according to Andrew Updegrove, a partner with Boston law firm Gesmer Updegrove, and the editor of

"Microsofts announcement on plug-ins is being treated in the press as new news," Updegrove said. "Ray Ozzie actually let slip mention of the project last October, and an open-source converter project was started by the same French company last September 26."

"Still, as recently as May 19, Microsoft did not disclose the project when it replied to a [Massachusetts] request for information on plug-ins. Why go public now? Presumably due to the series of pro-ODF announcements made in Europe," he said.

In fact, "The plug-in announcement is but the latest in a series of Microsoft concessions in reaction to the rising popularity of ODF. It will be interesting to see where the string of concessions eventually ends, as this latest fallback to a new defensive position leaves Microsoft far more vulnerable than it seemed only a few short months ago," Updegrove said.

However, much as I respect Updegrove, I dont see it that way. Regarding the timing, I think that it had much more to do with Office 2007s latest delay. Microsoft had to try to drum up some positive buzz for Office 2007, and this was all ready to go. But lets take a closer look at this ODF support of Microsofts, shall we?

First, consider what Microsoft will actually be offering. Its a set of third-party, add-on utilities that will enable Office users—first only Office 2007 users, but later users of other Microsoft Office programs as well—to read and write in ODF.

It is not a set of programs, open-source BSD license or not, that anyone else will be able to use. The Translator will only work with Microsofts own proprietary programs. You cant use it, as it is, as an independent bridge between Microsofts formats and ODF.

There are two key phrases here. The first is "third-party." Jason Matusow, Microsofts director of standards affairs, came right out and said Microsoft was not contributing code or providing architectural guidance for Open XML Translator.

/zimages/5/28571.gifThe OpenDocument Foundation says it will provide a plug-in that will allow Office users to open, render and save to ODF files. Click here to read more.

In other words, if it does a crummy job of translating to and from, dont look to Microsoft to clean up your slightly mangled documents. Microsoft will, however, be supplying technical support.

Why, oh why, do I think that Translators technical support line will often be telling users that the fault for a botched document transfer lies at ODFs door? And somehow I think Microsofts technical supports usual suggested "fix" will be to just use Microsofts own Open XML instead. "Its so much better," theyll say to annoyed users.

The next part of the Microsoft Translator trap is the phrase "add-on." Instead of simply building ODF in like any other format, Microsoft is going to require users to download and install the program themselves.

Any time theres an extra step that you dont have to take, most users wont bother to take it. I know it and Microsoft knows it.

Microsoft isnt bowing to any real pressure. Its making a move to help itself continue to sell Office to offices that require open standards but wont drink the "Open XML is an open standard" Kool-Aid.

Updegrove interprets the situation differently.

"Microsofts latest concession clearly makes it easier for governments and other users to feel safe in making the switch from Office to ODF-supporting software, since Microsoft itself will be collaborating to make document exchanges smooth and effortless," Updegrove said.

"Critics of the Massachusetts (and Danish, French and Belgian) initiative will now know that not only will Massachusetts government workers and the keepers of public records be able to easily exchange documents, but those with disabilities may simply continue to use Office as their peers convert to ODF software, later changing over themselves when accessibility tools for ODF software become available."

I cant see that at all. To me, for the reasons I cite above, this is just more Microsoft smoke and mirrors.

This isnt the first, or likely even the one hundred and first, time that Microsoft has played this open-standard support trick. It did it with "supporting" the Kerberos network authentication protocol. More recently, Microsoft has been playing the exact same game with Adobe Systems and support for its PDF format in Office 2007.

By doing the minimum to make Office 2007 technically compliant with government and corporate open-document-standard requirements, Microsoft isnt bowing to anything except its greed for continuing its desktop office monopoly.

What could Microsoft do if it were really interested in supporting open standards? Easy: Bake ODF import and export support into Office 2007. This? This Translator support is just another trap to keep users locked into Microsoft Office. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at

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