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12<h1 class="title">Why OpenDocument Won (and Microsoft Office Open XML Didn’t)</h1>
13<h2 class="author">David A. Wheeler</h2>
14<h2 class="date">September 2, 2005 (updated September 15, 2005)</h2>
15
16<p>
17As noted in <a href="http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20050831202118904">Groklaw</a>,
18<a href="http://news.ft.com/cms/s/80033a76-1a71-11da-b7f5-00000e2511c8.html">
19FT.com</a>,
20<a href="http://comment.zdnet.co.uk/other/0,39020682,39216101,00.htm">ZDNet</a>,
21and other places,
22the State of Massachusetts is backing the <i>OpenDocument</i> standard
23as the standard format for office applications, text documents, spreadsheets,
24charts and graphical documents like drawings and presentations.
25All Massachusetts agencies are expected to migrate by January 1, 2007.
26This is <i>instead</i> of Microsoft’s new Office XML format
27(aka Microsoft Office Open XML File format).
28
29</p><p>
30This is big news.
31Currently most people exchange office documents using Microsoft’s binary
32formats (known as .doc, .ppt, and .xls), but now that the XML technologies are
33available and more mature, many people want to switch to an
34XML-based approach.
35There’s general acceptance in the information technology community
36that for office documents
37some XML format will eventually replace the obsolete binary formats.
38Most people, a few years ago, expected that
39whatever XML format Microsoft created would win.
40Yet Microsoft appears to have lost the war, due to
41its own poor decisions.
42
43</p><p>
44Microsoft is predictably howling about this news,
45<a href="http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/archive/2005/08/31/458879.aspx">
46saying they are a
47“bit stunned” and that the results were “unnecessarily exclusive”.</a> 
48Microsoft better be prepared to be more stunned.
49Government officials in Massachusetts, Europe, and elsewhere,
50have been repeatedly telling Microsoft to
51stop posturing and actually meet their customers’ needs for complete
52interoperability, with no restrictions.
53Yet Microsoft has steadfastly refused to meet their customers’ needs, and
54they’ve done it so long that customers have abandoned their format.
55(Microsoft says they're open, but people who have independently
56evaluated the situation have determined that it's not true.)
57I suspect Massachusetts is only the first of many; governments around
58the world are working out their standards, preparing for the leap
59to XML-based office formats.
60The rest of industry is likely to follow suit, because they have many of
61the same needs and desires for long-lived documents and competitive suppliers.
62The best information
63available suggests that <i>everyone</i> is switching to OpenDocument,
64for all the same reasons,
65leaving Microsoft with a proprietary format no one wants to use.
66</p><blockquote>
67UPDATE: Almost immediately after I wrote this paragraph,
68<a href="http://www.desktoplinux.com/news/NS3370503002.html">
69Indonesia's Ministry of Research and Technology announced that
70it will implement Java Desktop System (JDS) on Linux as a
71national-standard desktop</a>. It plans to install it across Indonesia,
72<i>beginning</i> with its government-affiliated offices.
73JDS includes StarOffice, which is expected to soon release its OpenDocument
74implementation as its default file format.
75It sure doesn't take long for the steamroller to get moving, and the
76big kicker will probably be the European Union.
77<!-- September 15, 2005 -->
78</blockquote>
79
80<p>
81This article explains why things currently look so grim for
82Microsoft’s proprietary XML format, and so bright for OpenDocument.
83In some sense, a declaration that OpenDocument “won” on September 2005
84is very early; who knows what will happen?
85But this is more than a snappy title;
86the tea leaves are looking really bad right now for Microsoft’s dreams to
87solely control the format used by all future office documents.
88In fact, if they don’t hurry, Microsoft could conceivably find their
89Office suite slowly moving into the dumpster
90with WordStar, VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, dBase, and other former office leaders.
91That would be mind-boggling, but it’s occurred many times before --
92who would have thought that any of those predecessors would stumble?
93I don’t think that’ll happen in this case, at least not so
94quickly, but it’s certainly a risk unless Microsoft changes direction.
95That would be horrific for them; Office is 40% of their revenue, and one
96of the primary reasons people use their operating system (which accounts for
97most of the rest of their non-investment income).
98
99</p><p>
100I’m more hopeful; Microsoft has historically changed direction
101when it needed to embrace a standard, and they can easily do it in this case.
102For example, around 1995 it suddenly and finally embraced the
103Internet standards, dropping its own networking standards that no one wanted.
104I think (and hope)
105that good sense will prevail on Microsoft in this case too -- in other words,
106that they’ll embrace OpenDocument and continue to sell products.
107If you can only read one other piece on this topic, take a look at
108<a href="http://comment.zdnet.co.uk/other/0,39020682,39216101,00.htm">
109ZDNet's "Microsoft must drop its Office politics"</a>, which is a good article.
110ZDNet concludes "Microsoft has a very simple path open to it ... include
111OpenDocument compatibility in its software. ...
112it either adopts the industry standard or gets locked out.
113It may not like this -- it prefers to use this logic to cow its competitors --
114but it should have no reason to avoid a level playing field."
115
116</p><p>
117It looks like Microsoft gambled, and lost. Let’s see why, by looking
118at what governments are looking for... and why Microsoft chose to not compete.
119
120
121</p><h1>Why Would a Government Choose OpenDocument?</h1>
122
123<p>
124In many ways this decision was fairly obvious.
125OpenDocument appears, at
126this point, to be <b>the</b> way to go, with no realistic alternative,
127for any government.
128The only real contenders were:
129</p><ol>
130<li>Microsoft Office binary format, the current common interchange format.
131But this is being abandoned by Microsoft,
132fails to exploit the newer XML technologies (thus giving
133up their advantages), and because it’s undocumented it’s causing continuous
134information loss. Just try to read Office documents from 10 years ago --
135you’ll often fail.
136Now remember that governments need them in future centuries.
137They’re not meeting the need, so an alternative is needed.
138</li><li>Going with Microsoft Office XML, which as shown below, doesn’t meet
139government minimum requirements such as allowing any supplier to
140implement it. And implementations aren’t even available yet, though
141at this point that probably doesn’t matter any more.
142</li><li>OpenDocument, the only official standard. It’s already implemented
143by multiple vendors (including some at no cost), and it’s the only one
144that really meets government needs... and with a massive lead time to boot.
145</li></ol>
146<p>
147Other formats aren’t really competitive.
148PDF is a very useful display format, but it has a different purpose --
149while it’s great at preserving formatting, it doesn’t let you
150<i>edit</i> the data meaningfully.
151HTML is great for web pages, or short documents, but it’s
152just not capable enough for these kinds of tasks.
153And so on.
154Both HTML and PDF will continue to be used, but they cannot be used as
155a complete replacement; people need what OpenDocument (or its
156Microsoft competitor) provides.
157</p><p>
158So let’s examine in more detail to see why OpenDocument is such an
159obvious success, by first looking at the requirements governments have.
160Governments
161don’t create office documents so that they can be tossed in the shredder.  They
162often have to be accessible decades or centuries later, and many of them have to
163be accessible to <i>any</i> citizen, regardless of what equipment they use or
164will use.
165Let’s look at the kinds of issues governments (like Massachusetts)
166finds itself confronted with, by looking at their
167typical requirements for a modern office format:
168</p><ol>
169<li><b>An XML-based format</b>. Now that XML is available, governments
170want a single format that uses XML for its many advantages
171(e.g., easy standard processing, flexibility,
172easy growth
173to arbitrary sizes, ease of repair/recovery, and interoperability).
174Binary formats have real trouble with extensibility, for example;
175if they assign
176one byte to a value, and later discover that they need more than one byte, it’s
177difficult to change anything, while in XML you just write the larger number.
178Repair is hard too; in XML, if some data is scrambled, you can recover the rest,
179but a scrambled binary file is often unrecoverable.
180(Compressed XML files like OpenDocument have the disadvantage that
181recovering <i>after</i> the scrambled point is often very difficult,
182but you can typically recover the data <i>before</i> scrambled section,
183and sometimes you can do much better. Unspecified binary formats
184are worse -- if the program says “failed to load” there may be nothing
185you can do, even if there’s some recoverable data before the scrambled point.)
186<p>
187But the biggest reason for XML is to make it extremely easy for <i>anyone</i>
188to quickly make tools that can read, write, and manipulate the data.
189If you only use one program, ever, to read a format, it’s livable if
190the format is bizarre (like Microsoft’s current binary format is).
191But now that everything is networked, people want to quickly take pieces
192of data from many sources and combine them in new ways, and that demands
193a data format that’s much more flexible and accessible to any tool.
194XML was designed to do just this, so people want some kind of
195XML format.
196For office data,
197the choice is either OpenDocument or Microsoft’s XML format.
198</p><p>
199</p></li><li><b>A specification</b>.
200In the long term, all formats disappear.  WordStar was once
201what <i>everyone</i> used as their word processor; now, no one even has a filter
202to read the format.  Luckily, WordStar format is similar to ASCII and is thus
203mostly recoverable.  Today, I can’t read some important PowerPoint 4 files in
204today’s PowerPoint - unacceptable to me, and governments think in terms of
205decades and centuries. Yet it happens, because there’s still no specification
206for the (now obsolete) Microsoft Office format.  If there’s no spec, there’s no
207standard.
208<p>
209An aside: Microsoft program manager Adam Barr has suggested
210<a href="http://www.proudlyserving.com/archives/2005/09/an_open_letter.html">
211releasing a specification for the older Microsoft office binary formats.</a>
212That would go a <i>long</i> way to improving interoperability, and if they
213did that (in a way that allowed any competitor to implement them)
214I’d be delighted.
215This would certainly be a big help to many
216as long as arbitrary competitors could use the format
217(as opposed to the current license for the Microsoft XML format).
218It’s not even clear that Microsoft <i>could</i> really limit the license,
219since you’re not supposed to be able to patent things that already exist
220in the public for more than a year.
221That would not provide the benefits of XML, obviously, but it might mean
222that a transition to XML could happen in a slower manner (since there would
223be less concern about data loss, a serious concern today).
224I have not seen any evidence that Microsoft will do that, unfortunately.
225
226</p><p>
227</p></li><li><b>Neutral specification maintainer, preferably a respected
228pre-existing standards body</b>. OpenDocument has been developed and is
229maintained by a vendor-neutral body (OASIS); OASIS is even authorized to submit
230its specifications straight to ISO.  Heck, Microsoft is even a member
231of OASIS; they certainly can’t claim ignorance of OpenDocument.
232Microsoft hasn’t even <i>begun</i> a
233standards process for its format.
234In May 2004 the European Union specifically told Microsoft to get involved
235with the OpenDocument standards effort, and that they considered the "winner"
236to be the one that became an international standard.
237At this point they’re too late -- the
238standards train already left the station, and arrived at the destination called
239OpenDocument.
240Patrick Gannon, president and CEO of OASIS, noted that
241<a href="http://www.govtech.net/news/news.php?id=96645">
242"many European governments are considering similar policies
243[to require OpenDocument, like Massachusetts]"</a>, and it will be
244a topic of discussion at OASIS' European Adoption Forum in London,
24517 October 2005.
246<p>
247</p></li><li><b>Multi-vendor/customer development</b>.
248The only way to make
249sure that all critical user needs and supplier issues are addressed is to get
250many different organizations to co-develop the specification, along with
251public feedback.
252Microsoft’s XML format didn’t; its development was
253completely controlled by Microsoft.
254That’s a terrible misstep for something that is supposed to be
255used worldwide, in perpetuity, for trillions of dollars worth
256of documents.
257Though first draft
258specifications are often created by a single person or small group,
259you <i>have</i> to get widespread review to get a good final result.
260
261<p>
262</p></li><li><b>Multiple implementations.</b> There are now
263multiple implementations of OpenDocument, with probably more to be announced
264soon. Governments don’t want to be locked into a single vendor, nor to force
265their citizens to do so.  The costs go sky-high, and support vanishes, when
266there’s no competition. Only one vendor really supports the Microsoft XML
267format.
268Note that having multiple implementations is the best way to ensure that
269specification actually provides interoperability; the IETF even requires this
270for its standards because of this.
271Microsoft has mouthed nonsense such as claiming OpenDocument is only
272designed for OpenOffice.org, but multiple implementations show it false.
273<p>
274</p></li><li><b>Anyone can implement the specification</b>.
275Anyone can implement OpenDocument, and that’s <i>not</i> true for
276Microsoft’s format.
277Today, there are too many
278people and too many programs that need access to the data in office
279documents.
280Thus, it’s critical that anyone be able to implement an office format,
281especially since it’s the whole point of using XML.
282<p>
283This point seems to be the hardest for some people to understand, so
284here’s more detail.
285The bottom line: Microsoft licenses this format in a way
286that says, “you can use it freely,
287unless you’re a competitor”.
288And that’s a poison pill for any format like this, because governments
289<i>want</i> competition.
290</p><p>
291<a href="http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/archive/2005/08/31/458879.aspx">
292Microsoft itself acknowledges the need</a> for an open format, saying that
293“Moving to document formats that are open, documented,
294and royalty-free is actually really valuable....
295[because it makes your files] totally belong to you [so] you
296have control over them.”
297Good words!
298But there are words, and there are actions; governments are not always stupid.
299To meet such requirements, any such format
300has to be implementable by <i>any</i> proprietary program and by
301<i>any</i> open source software, <i>at least</i>
302using the licenses typical for each.
303Fifteen years ago it was easy to ignore open source software, but now
304the market has all sorts of open source software.
305Nowadays, governments cannot in fairness mandate a standard
306that forbids implementations that use the most popular licenses
307for open source software;
308blatantly discriminatory regulations like that
309can bring officials into court.
310</p><p>
311And let’s be blunt:
312<a href="http://www.dwheeler.com/essays/gpl-compatible.html">the
313most common license for open source software is the GNU GPL version 2</a>,
314so any office format must be implementable
315by a program released under the GNU GPL.
316<a href="http://www.dwheeler.com/essays/gpl-compatible.html">See here
317for GPL stats</a>. I looked up the data again on September 1, 2005; <a href="http://freshmeat.net/stats/">Freshmeat’s statistics</a> report that 67.41%
318of branches used the GPL, with the next-closest being LGPL (6.06%) and original
319BSD (3.34%).  Even if you pretended that all non-GPL licenses were identical,
320when combined they’re still the minority.  Not all backers of open source
321software like or use the GPL, but making it illegal to use such a widely-used
322license, for no good reason in public policy, is lunacy.
323
324</p><p>
325Microsoft hasn’t been willing to license its products
326for absolutely anyone to use, so it’s been unwilling to release
327a specification that’s appropriate for government use.
328Instead, Microsoft has
329only been willing to release a
330specification as long as it can’t be used by some of Microsoft’s
331primary competition, by creating weird legal licensing clauses that prevent
332interoperation and competition.
333<a href="http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1829728,00.asp">
334Microsoft’s XML format cannot be implemented by programs
335licensed under the GNU GPL</a>, for example.
336Under U.S. law, Microsoft is allowed to write specifications that exclude
337competitors, but it shouldn’t be surprised if people choose to not use them.
338Especially since there are current office suite products that use licenses
339that appear to be excluded by Microsoft's terms
340(Gnumeric and AbiWord at least use the GPL; OpenOffice.org uses the
341related LGPL, and it's not clear they can use it either).
342There's no reason to lock out these market players.
343Remember, the whole point of the XML formats is to let <i>anyone</i>
344read and write them, if they choose.
345
346</p><p>
347In contrast, the OpenDocument specification can be implemented by anyone
348who uses any license, proprietary or open source -- including
349the GNU GPL license and Microsoft’s current Office license.
350So OpenDocument is open for anyone to implement, including Microsoft... while
351Microsoft’s XML format isn’t.
352<a href="http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/archive/2005/08/31/458879.aspx">
353Microsoft’s claim that OpenDocument is “unnecessarily
354exclusive” is nonsense</a>; the shoe is on the other foot.
355I’d say this reason,
356by itself, is sufficient to disqualify Microsoft’s XML format from any
357government consideration, no matter what its capabilities, because it fails to
358give users the option of choosing what program or system they can use.
359Microsoft is just trying to prevent competition here.
360The
361<a href="http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/2592/5588">European Union</a>,
362<a href="http://www-128.ibm.com/developerworks/blogs/dw_blog_comments.jspa?blog=384&amp;entry=83074">IBM's Bob Sutor</a>
363and many others all warn against this.
364Other countries are even less likely to accept Microsoft’s XML format;
365while Massachusetts sees Microsoft as a domestic
366company, other countries will see Microsoft as a foreign company and be
367<i>very uninterested</i> in forbidding competition against a foreign company.
368
369</p><p>
370Massachusetts’ Kriss emphasized that Massachusetts is not moving
371to open standards for economic reasons, but to protect the right
372of the public to open and free access to public documents, permanently.
373“What we’ve backed away from at this point is the use of a
374proprietary standard and we want standards that are published
375and free of legal encumbrances, and we don’t want two standards.”
376
377</p><p>
378Perhaps an analogy would help explain this.
379I expect
380that Microsoft would be unhappy if Massachusetts mandated that only GPL’ed
381software could be used by Massachusetts. Yet if Massachusetts did that, they
382could at least argue the advantages of doing so in terms of transparency of the
383code.  (No, I’m not arguing that Massachusetts <i>should</i> do that, I’m just
384trying to make a point.) In contrast, Microsoft wants Massachusetts to mandate
385that GPL’ed software be <i>forbidden</i> for use in office suites.  There’s no
386good public policy reason to do that, and lots of competitive reasons to avoid
387doing so.  Especially when there’s a ready alternative -- an international
388standard, already implemented multiple times, including some high-quality
389freely-available implementations (giving them a range of options). I get the
390impression that Massachusetts worked really hard with Microsoft to get them to
391change the license to something more reasonable, so that Microsoft wouldn’t so
392obviously disqualify its work. Yet Microsoft continues to try to promulgate a
393specification license that forbids competition. Expecting any government to
394perpetually forbid the use of competing office suites is rediculous,
395and Microsoft should have known better.
396I think they did know better, and hoped no one would notice.
397
398</p><p>
399</p></li><li><b>Low-cost implementations</b>.
400Not everyone is made of money.
401Governments have to interact with people who have little money, and governments
402are often strapped themselves.
403For OpenDocument, this is a no-brainer.
404Some OpenDocument implementations are available at no cost
405(particularly OpenOffice.org and KDE KOffice) and have a
406licensing structure that allows that to continue that way indefinitely.
407And these are good programs, not poor quality demos.
408Even if you choose to use a non-free implementation (say StarOffice
409or Microsoft Office with an OpenDocument plug-in), this is obviously a big
410advantage to you, because it constrains the office suite prices.
411No such luck with Microsoft’s XML format;
412Microsoft XML is only available in the latest version of Office.
413Indeed, their licensing is carefully designed to prevent the most likely
414kinds of competition (it’s “free” as long as you’re not a real competitor).
415So to get Microsoft’s XML, you’d have to upgrade
416huge groups of people at a corresponding huge cost.
417There really isn’t even a competition between these two formats.
418And it gets worse; since no one else is supporting Microsoft XML,
419Microsoft XML will probably stay expensive to deploy, due to a
420lack of competition, especially if more people try to use it.
421This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; if more people try to use it,
422Microsoft will have incentive to raise the price (to get more money out of
423it), which in the long term will cause people to stop using it.
424
425<p>
426</p></li><li><b>Support is already available for OpenDocument.</b>
427OpenDocument is already out, and already getting used, so that lowers the risk.
428In fact, OpenDocument was developed based on lessons learned from the
429older OpenOffice.org format (they aren’t the same, but they’re similar,
430and the changes were made based on widespread review.)
431Microsoft’s full XML format still hasn’t even been fielded
432(it’s coming soon); it’s based on previous Office 2003 work, but
433that was never used as Office’s primary format, didn’t support critical
434components like PowerPoint, and the older version didn’t support all the
435functionality of the product.
436OpenDocument support is already out, and it appears more mature, especially
437if you consider multivendor support.
438As of yet I’ve seen no evidence of
439significant multivendor office suite support for Microsoft’s XML format.
440</li></ol>
441
442<p>
443The story here seems clear.
444Microsoft gambled that, because most current office users use their
445Office program, customers would choose
446Microsoft’s XML format <i>even though
447Microsoft’s format did not meet their requirements</i>.
448It appears that they hoped that, by creating subtle license traps,
449they would foreclose future competition, but make it look good enough
450that government officials wouldn’t understand the issues.
451Perhaps they expected that people wouldn’t examine
452their options carefully;
453an odd assumption, since so much money and data is at stake.
454Government folks are often overworked, yes, but there are a lot of
455smart people in government.
456
457</p><p>
458Government people can act especially smartly when they get
459good tips from others.
460A few years ago, secret Microsoft documents now named
461<a href="http://www.opensource.org/halloween/halloween1.html">Halloween I</a>
462and
463<a href="http://www.opensource.org/halloween/halloween2.html">Halloween II</a>
464were exposed to the world.
465These documents were developed in collaboration with key people in Microsoft.
466Their bottom line was a recommendation that
467Microsoft suppress competition by “de-commoditizing” protocols
468(creating proprietary formats that could not be used by others)
469and by attacking competitors through patent lawsuits.
470Since that time, people have been watching carefully and
471<a href="http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1829728,00.asp">warning
472when Microsoft tries to “release” formats whose conditions inhibit
473competition</a>.
474
475</p><p>
476<a href="http://comment.zdnet.co.uk/other/0,39020682,39216101,00.htm">
477ZDNet came to a similar conclusion</a>, saying,
478"[when] open standards exist which are capable of supporting
479the work the state does, this should be an unexceptional decision;
480accessibility for as broad a range of citizens and organisations
481as possible is a primary responsibility for any government."
482<a href="http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/2592/5588">The
483European Union said, similarly,</a>
484"Because of its specific role in society, the public sector must
485avoid that a specific product is forced on anyone interacting
486with it electronically. Conversely, any document format
487that does not discriminate against market actors and that
488can be implemented across platforms should be encouraged.
489Likewise, the public sector should avoid any format that
490does not safeguard equal opportunities to market actors to implement
491format-processing applications, especially where this might
492impose product selection on the side of citizens or businesses.
493In this respect standardisation initiatives will ensure not only a
494fair and competitive market but will also help safeguard the
495interoperability of implementing solutions whilst preserving
496competition and innovation."
497
498</p><p>
499Customers, in this case governments, didn’t just accept whatever
500terms Microsoft gave them.
501That makes sense; few people just sign a blank check!
502Instead, they
503looked at the alternatives, found one that actually met their requirements, and
504chose that alternative instead.
505Now governments are starting to
506formally state their requirements, in terms of industry specifications,
507so that any supplier meet their needs.
508Suppliers can now choose to implement the
509specification and compete on cost, functionality, flexibility, consistency with
510public policy, and so on... or they can choose to not compete, and
511automatically lose.
512In other words, governments can do what governments
513usually do -- they can set a fair requirement that anyone can meet, clearly
514justified by their needs, and then use whichever suppliers
515best meets their requirements (in this case, for an interoperable format).
516This is not anti-Microsoft; governments have been specifically asking
517Microsoft for years to co-develop formats anyone can use, and Microsoft
518can implement the resulting industry standard, OpenDocument.
519
520</p><p>
521While the rest of industry doesn’t have the same needs as government,
522they have to <i>work</i> with governments, so government decisions sometimes
523have a trickle-down effect.
524Also, industry also has documents that need to be retrievable in the
525future, and the certainly want the lower costs and higher quality that
526tend to come from competition.
527So, as governments start making and announcing decisions in this direction,
528it’s reasonable to expect in this specific area that much of industry
529will follow.
530It’s true that Massachusetts all by itself cannot change the world, but
531Massachusetts has the same problems of many large governments, and it’s
532reasonable to think that if Massachusetts makes this selection, other
533governments will too.
534
535</p><h1>So is OpenDocument any Good?</h1>
536<p>
537Is OpenDocument any good?
538Yes. In short, OpenDocument is a really good specification.
539<a href="http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20050130002908154">
540The Future Is Open: What OpenDocument Is And Why You Should Care by Daniel Carrera</a> gives some information on the advantages of OpenDocument.
541<a href="http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/200x/2004/09/24/SmartEC">Tim Bray also makes some interesting comments</a>.
542<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenDocument">Wikipedia’s OpenDocument article</a> has some interesting information.
543
544</p><p>
545You can sometimes learn a lot about something by seeing how it was
546created, and by who -- and that’s true here.
547OpenDocument was developed by many office suite developers, including
548those who develop <a href="http://www.openoffice.org/">OpenOffice.org</a>,
549StarOffice, KDE’s KOffice, and Word Perfect (Corel).
550But some major users were involved, too, to make sure that their needs
551were met.
552Boeing was there; they have large, complicated documents, so
553their participation helped make sure that complex documents could be
554handled well.
555A Bible translation group also participated; they have lots of complex
556language needs, including multi-language documents and unusual languages;
557as a result,
558OpenDocument generally handles internationalization issues in a stellar way.
559They also allowed review by the public;
560I took that opportunity and voluntarily sent in comments, as did others.
561And they used as a basis an existing XML format (OpenOffice’s);
562this gave them a big leg up on Microsoft, whose previous XML work for
563Office documents did not cover key areas (Powerpoint, for example).
564This is how you get a good specification lasts a long time;
565you start with pre-existing work, and get many participants with different
566needs to work out any of its problems.
567
568</p><p>
569Contrast OpenDocument with Microsoft’s XML format.
570Last I saw, perfectly normal office-only documents
571can contain binary objects that depend on MS Office and
572Windows (e.g., OLE) and those lack complete documentation.
573But most importantly, its license essentially disqualifies it.
574
575</p><p>
576Though I wasn't on the committee that developed it, during their public
577comment period I read it myself and sent in a few comments.
578I was generally pleased with it after I reviewed it;
579there’s a lot of good to say about it.
580It’s actually quite clear to read, as these things go.
581And the careful crafting, and review by many, shows in the result.
582It's smaller than it might otherwise be, because they reused pre-existing
583standards instead of rolling their own
584(which is also a good idea in most cases).
585Now, OpenDocument isn’t perfect; no human product is.
586In particular, it underspecifies formulas in spreadsheets.
587It <i>covers</i> spreadsheets, including formatting, pivot tables, data,
588and lots of other issues, and gives examples of correct formulas,
589but doesn’t define in
590enough rigor the actual format for calculated formulas in spreadsheets.
591But the problem is underspecification, not that the specification that's there
592is bad, and for simple spreadsheets the material that's available is
593enough to get started.
594I found that to be a weakness, so I voluntarily developed a document called
595<a href="http://www.dwheeler.com/openformula">OpenFormula</a> to try
596to address this.
597In any case, this turns out to be relatively easy to address;
598it’s certainly easier to address than
599the mess Microsoft has created for itself.
600And since there are multiple implementations of OpenDocument today, these
601sorts of weaknesses have already been identified and are being addressed.
602In contrast, Microsoft’s constraining licenses have restrained the kind of
603multi-vendor testing that is needed for good, long-lasting standards.
604
605
606</p><h1>What Can Microsoft Do?</h1>
607
608<p>
609Now Microsoft’s in a minor bind. The world is
610already switching to OpenDocument, and now that all the other suppliers have
611invested in OpenDocument and have it working, there’s really no real incentive
612to use an alternative.
613
614</p><p>
615If Microsoft wanted to suddenly get their work
616standardized now, they would have many problems doing so.
617Since it wasn’t developed in a large
618multi-vendor community, it will probably take years to really
619vet it and fix the inevitable problems that creep in when you work
620in isolation,
621years it doesn’t have because
622OpenDocument is already here and has <i>had</i> those years of experience
623and vetting.
624They could hire a bunch of people and do a pretend “independent” analysis
625by many people all paid by the same vendor, but the results are not likely
626to result in good work.
627I doubt Microsoft will even get much interest in the
628standards community; they already have a standard, so
629there’s no need to do the work twice.
630And that assumes Microsoft fixes its
631licensing problems, which appears unlikely.
632It can be done, but they’ve delayed entry into the standards process for
633so long that it’s not clear if anyone cares about standardizing
634on their format any more.
635In particular, it’s hard to imagine other office suite vendors being
636very interested, because they’ve already invested years in a perfectly
637good standard.
638Vendors will probably give Microsoft’s XML format a Monty Python-like
639response --
640<a href="http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady/archives/000732.html">
641“It’s very nice-a, but we already got one.”</a>
642And without participation from multiple vendors who <i>implement</i>
643office suites, the standardization would just be viewed (correctly)
644as a sham.
645
646</p><p>
647Microsoft can go ahead and use only
648Microsoft XML, but since nobody else can read it (including many
649current deployments of Office), and people are standardizing
650on OpenDocument instead, customers may find that they just don’t want
651the latest version of Office unless Microsoft hurries up and
652implements the standard.
653Strong pressure might cause abandonment of the latest version of
654Microsoft Office, intead of getting people to switch to the product.
655
656</p><p>
657One major use for Microsoft’s XML format might be as a starting point
658for a separate program that converts their format into OpenDocument.
659If an office suite built that in, but uses licenses like the GPL that
660Microsoft disapproves of, then Microsoft could exploit that
661through its license and shut the office suite down.
662But if it’s a separate program, it’s not clear what Microsoft would do.
663They could shut down the converter, but that wouldn’t stop competitors, and
664it would expose their licensing conditions as anti-competitive without
665actually harming the office suite suppliers.
666(Exposing conditions as anti-competitive makes sense from a business
667perspective if you can drive your competitors out of business before the law
668can do anything, but it makes no sense if it only exposes you to liability
669without harming your competitors.)
670If they do not shut down the converter, it could help people to
671move away from Office even more rapidly.
672
673</p><p>
674I feel really sorry for people like
675<a href="http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/">Microsoft’s Brian Jones</a>;
676they’ve poured part of their lives into getting an XML format into
677Microsoft Office, and tried to get it at least partly open.
678Yet Microsoft’s decision-makers appear to have
679shot themselves in the foot.
680I doubt very much that people like Brian Jones made the legal decisions that
681appear to have made Microsoft XML lose; he does not deserve
682condemnation for those decisions.
683
684</p><p>
685But really, this needn’t hurt Microsoft at all.
686Anyone can implement OpenDocument, so Microsoft
687can easily add code to Microsoft Office so that
688they fully support OpenDocument too.
689It’s easy, but will they swallow their pride enough to make their
690customers happy? I hope so.
691Someone will do it; OpenOffice.org itself could be
692used as a filter, if nothing else.
693There are XML-to-XML tools (like XSLT) that should make it easy to do.
694I suspect if Microsoft added good OpenDocument interfaces to
695Office, a lot of people would buy it.
696On the other hand, if people end up having
697to use OpenOffice.org as a plug-in to use Microsoft Office, they may soon start
698asking why they need Microsoft Office.
699</p><p>
700Microsoft can choose to do what it likes, but so can customers.
701Customers want a completely open standard, and Microsoft has chosen
702to not meet their customers’ requirements. If Microsoft continues
703to do so, then
704Microsoft should expect to lose its customers; that’s how
705the market works.
706They can’t claim ignorance that their customers
707want fully open standards;
708governments have been asking for them for decades.
709They know the rules, they just chose to ignore them.
710</p><p>
711
712</p><h1>But this Can’t Happen!</h1>
713<p>
714Actually, it can.  A market leader can find that it’s failed to
715listen to its customers, and then either meet its customers’ needs or
716lose the market.
717It’s happened many times before.
718Microsoft decided to ignore the standards in this case, and so they’ll have to
719play catch-up if they want to compete.
720But they can do it, if they choose to, and they can harmed, if they
721ignore their customers.
722History even gives us some ready examples, so let’s look at them.
723</p><p>
724In the late 1980s
725through 1995, Microsoft refused to accept the Internet TCP/IP (and later web)
726standards, and tried to get everyone to use Microsoft’s proprietary networking
727standards instead.
728Even though everyone used Microsoft clients, the market rejected
729Microsoft’s networking standards, and chose plug-ins or switched away from
730Microsoft.
731Microsoft suddenly realized that its customers were leaving, and that
732they were about to be completely sidelined.  Around 1995 Gates commanded his
733troops to do an about-face and rush to get TCP/IP and the WWW far better
734supported.  It wasn’t pretty at the time, but in fairly short order they got at
735least some things working to remain competitive.
736Microsoft has been powerful for
737a long time, but not omnipotent; when the market moves toward important
738interoperability standards, Microsoft usually manages to support them
739eventually, even if Microsoft had been trying to sell an alternative.
740</p><p>
741In fact, market leaders in this <i>particular</i>
742market niche have been overrun before.
743WordStar, Word Perfect, VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, and dBase were all
744market-dominating office software at one time, supported by companies who
745had great incentive to stay as market leader.
746Each one lost because they ignored their customers, through problems such
747as ignoring the transition to 16-bit computing, to graphical user interfaces,
748or the need for reliability.
749Customers want to transition to a standard XML format
750for office data that <i>anyone</i> can implement,
751and are getting serious about it.
752They are even more serious now, because this is a side-effect of massive
753networking: with massive networking, everyone needs to be able to take
754and extract different snippets of data, in novel ways, so they need a format
755that is general enough to support it.
756Microsoft hasn’t taken that seriously enough.
757
758</p><p>
759Obviously, having a lock on the current market is no guarantee of the future.
760David Halberstam’s book “The Reckoning” gives another example from
761carmaking:
762“The US Big Three automakers thought that they could dictate what their
763‘captive’ market could buy, but the US public proved that assumption
764to be false, in the mid seventies. The only survivors from that era of heavy,
765rear wheel drive land yachts (albeit in much reduced and much improved forms)
766were the Ford Crown Victoria/ Mercury Grand Marquis and the Lincoln Town Car.
767Every other passenger vehicle is some variation of the K-car.”
768<!-- http://www.groklaw.net/comment.php?mode=display&sid=20050911201041458&title=You+guys+are+pretty+optimistic&type=article&order=&hideanonymous=0&pid=357707#c357727 -->
769
770
771</p><p>
772Can a group of suppliers overtake a big company? Sure.
773Look at the videotape standards war of
774VHS vs. Sony Betamax in the 1980’s.
775Sony was a big company, trying to control
776an industry through a format it created.
777But the rest of the industry chose VHS, which allowed many different
778suppliers (Sony tightly controlled who could implement Betamax, while
779the VHS specification was far more open to implementation by others).
780The group of VHS suppliers quickly competed with each other, while staying
781true to the standard, customers preferred formats where there were
782competing vendors, and as a group the VHS vendors demolished Betamax’s
783market share.
784There’s even a slang term based on this; “to betamax”
785means “to deploy a proprietary technology format
786that gets overwhelmed in the market by a format that allows
787multiple competing manufacturers”.
788There’s more to that story, of course, but my point is that being big
789does not mean every product you make is accepted in the market.
790The fact that there’s a slang term tells you something else:
791occasionally suppliers try this stunt.
792Large companies are often lured (by greed) into trying to completely
793control a market and their customers via a proprietary format.
794Often competitors (who fear being driven out of business) then
795band together with customers (who fear having a sole supplier)
796to develop and promote a standard that is not as proprietary.
797Eventually the broadly-created standards tend to win, because
798customers make the final decisions, and few customers want to be
799controlled by a single vendor.
800Having broad input into the standard’s development also helps make sure
801that all important needs were addressed.
802Microsoft is betamaxing in this case,
803and that’s too bad.
804
805</p><p>
806Microsoft even freely admits that customers do not want to be locked
807into a single supplier for their office documents.
808The problem is that Microsoft has been repeatedly claiming that
809their format meets this requirement.
810No independent evaluator believes Microsoft has met this requirement,
811and in fact, several published reports have explained exactly why
812Microsoft has not met this minimum bar.
813
814</p><p>
815Do official standards always win in the market?
816Of course not!
817Many standards have failed in the past because they didn’t have any
818implementations, their implementations were poor, or because the
819implementations were far more expensive than their competitors.
820But no one pretends that any of these cases are true.
821Even
822<a href="http://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/789019/000119312505174825/d10k.htm#tx69164_3">Microsoft’s Form 10-K report ending June 2005
823admits that OpenOffice.org’s competition</a>, in particular, is now a risk
824factor for them.
825The main reason standards don’t win are not in evidence here.
826But the
827typical reasons for a market leader to fail are in full bloom, namely,
828failing to meet
829critical customer requirements and pushing a proprietary format against
830an open standard widely supported by competitors and embraced by users.
831
832<!--
833VHS beat Betamax, and the Internet TCP/IP protocols beat
834Microsoft's networking protocols, given the same circumstances.
835-->
836
837</p><p>
838There’s no doubt that this will cost money.
839Any transition -- even a minor transition to a new version of the same
840product -- costs money.
841But these are one-time costs, whereas staying where they are will cause
842more data loss, and by telling everyone <i>now</i> where they are going they
843can get everyone moving in the same direction (with more lead time,
844the risks and costs go down).
845Saugus, Massachusetts’ website
846<a href="http://www.saugus.net/Dailies/daily_2005-09-01_1653/">
847Saugus.net</a>
848suggests this transition may not be as difficult as some fear:
849“It won’t affect most of the bigger Saugus web sites at all
850(as Saugus.net has been supporting open formats generally since 1998
851when the Saugus By-Laws were first made available, and newer Saugus School
852sites like the TAHG project site are already building in support, too).”
853Certainly this rollout will require planning, as with any IT policy, but
854that’s why people get hired to manage IT infrastructures.
855
856
857</p><h1>Bottom Line</h1>
858
859<p>
860At this time it appears that OpenDocument is the wisest and
861lowest-risk long-term decision, even though at first blush it
862seems surprising.
863Any market leader has lots of advantages, but it appears that
864Microsoft has far overplayed its hand here.
865
866</p><p>
867The old Microsoft Office format is unspecified and will cause
868continuing data loss, and it fails to take advantage of XML technology.
869Even Microsoft is abandoning it. Microsoft’s XML format will
870prevent instead of help
871interoperability; it simply fails to meet typical government requirements,
872since its restrictive license prevents real competition and it
873failed to enter the standardization process (as requested by Europe and others).
874People will try to do what’s easy, but only if actually meets their
875requirements.
876
877</p><p>
878By announcing their goal early, governments like
879Massachusetts make it easier to achieve them, because that gives people time to
880plan that transition, and suppliers more time to implement
881the requirement.  It appears that many other governments (including
882European governments) are coming to
883the same conclusion, for all the same reasons.
884Massachusetts has not rejected Microsoft Office, the program; they’ve
885simply rejected Microsoft’s new XML format, and chosen the
886international standard instead.
887Even if Massachusetts backed down (always a possibility, especially since
888sometimes technical decisions get trumped by good ol’ boy networks), this
889certainly suggests that other organizations will do the same.
890In fact, this can’t help but move the eye to another battleground: Europe.
891
892</p><p>
893<a href="http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/2592/5588">In 2004
894Europe made its desires quite clear</a>. In particular,
895they told Microsoft to consider “the merits of submitting XML formats
896to an international standards body of their choice”
897and issue “a public commitment to publish and provide
898non-discriminatory access to future versions
899of its WordML specifications”.
900Europe also stated that where
901“only a single revisable document format can be used, this
902should be for a format around which there is industry consensus,
903as demonstrated by the format’s adoption as a standard.”
904Microsoft failed to take the hint, by avoiding standards and failing to
905provide non-discriminatory action.
906Microsoft could try to rush in at the last minute and catch up,
907or customers could decide that they don’t need their requirements;
908but every day that seems more doubtful.
909Governments and now doing just what they said they’d do... they’re
910choosing the standard, based on what meets their need.
911
912</p><p>
913I’m no Microsoft-basher, I even have friends there,
914and I’ll freely praise good decisions they make.
915But in this particular
916case, I think they’ve made some poor decisions, and
917the result was fairly predictable.
918Predicting is hard, especially about the future (so it’s said), and
919this certainly isn’t as certain as the sun’s rising.
920But things sure don’t look good for
921Microsoft’s proprietary XML format right now.
922Tacking the word “open” into the name doesn’t make it open,
923and ’royalty-free but not to all my competitors‘ is
924simply not acceptable to people nowadays.
925Even the Microsoft’s old binary office
926formats didn’t have those kinds of onerous limitations!
927
928</p><p>
929I’m sure that there will be people who use Microsoft’s new format.
930That’s not my point.
931My point is that it’s clear that Microsoft’s format is unlikely to
932dominate the future of office formats in the same way that their old
933binary formats did, unless something dramatic happens.
934The old binary formats for Word, Excel, etc., have become so common that
935essentially <i>every</i> office suite must be able to read and write them.
936But this ubiquity, without a specification and based on limited
937binary formats, has become problematic.
938These old formats are essentially unspecified, hard to process, and
939depend far too much on low-level arbitrary structures of old versions
940of Microsoft Office. Even Microsoft’s latest versions of Office
941often fail to read this format, and as they update their programs, older
942documents are increasingly likely to become unreadable.
943Since even Microsoft can’t manage to read the older versions of the format,
944reliably, there’s clearly a fundamental flaw in the format.
945Which is why there’s a need for a standard XML format.
946
947</p><p>
948<a href="http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=1812">David Berlind of ZDNet has
949a suspicion similar to mine:</a>
950“My hunch is that there are plenty of government agencies,
951both domestic and foreign watching this one and that,
952in this game of chicken, Microsoft will not win.”
953
954</p><p>
955This won’t be hard for Microsoft to deal with, technically; they
956can just add the code to support OpenDocument.
957They already support RTF, ASCII, HTML, Word Perfect, and lots of
958other formats.
959The real question is, can Microsoft swallow its pride to meet user needs...
960or are they willing to risk their entire company in the hopes that
961users don’t care about their own requirements?
962Hopefully cooler heads will prevail, and Microsoft will simply
963implement the only international standard.
964It’s only one format, after all.
965
966</p><p>
967No doubt Microsoft will press on for a little while, and try to make
968it so that “everyone accepts both”.
969Except that everyone can’t accept both,
970because their licensing still forbids it.
971It really doesn’t make sense to have two formats for the same thing
972anyway.
973And if there can be only one format, customers want anyone to be able to
974compete using that format, without any restrictions.
975
976</p><p>
977There’s no use in Microsoft
978complaining that their proprietary format wasn’t chosen.
979<a href="http://news.zdnet.co.uk/software/linuxunix/0,39020390,39216391,00.htm">
980Microsoft claims that OpenDocument is specific to OpenOffice 2.0</a>,
981but that’s rediculous. <i>Many</i> programs implement OpenDocument,
982in fact, KOffice was first.
983In contrast, only one company currently implements
984Microsoft’ format.
985Besides, there seems to be universal agreement that
986Microsoft’ format is specific to Microsoft, and Microsoft made
987all decisions about the format.
988The accusation appears far more appropriate to be raised against Microsoft XML.
989Microsoft was told that
990what users wanted was an internationally-standardized format usable by all,
991without restriction.
992For <i>years</i> they were told that.
993Yet Microsoft was unwilling to provide what their customers demanded.
994Now other (hungrier) suppliers have stepped up to meet the customer needs,
995and the rest of the suppliers risk losing the market to the suppliers
996who <i>do</i> want to meet customer needs.
997That’s how the market works.
998
999
1000</p><p>
1001</p><hr>
1002<p>
1003More information is available in articles such as
1004<a href="http://comment.zdnet.co.uk/other/0,39020682,39216101,00.htm">
1005ZDNet's "Microsoft must drop its Office politics"</a>,
1006<a href="http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/200x/2005/09/10/Mass-Opposition">
1007Tim Bray's Massachusetts Back-Room</a>,
1008<a href="http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1829728,00.asp">
1009“Open XML Incompatible With GPL” by Peter Galli</a> (June 20, 2005, eWeek),
1010and
1011<a href="http://blogs.sun.com/roller/page/webmink?entry=a_study_in_framing">A
1012Study in Framing</a>.
1013Broader information is available in
1014<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Document">Wikipedia’s article
1015on OpenDocument</a>.
1016<a href="http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=170700325">According to Paula Rooney of Information Week</a>,
1017this should have been no surprise:
1018“The state and software company have locked horns on this issue
1019for more than two years”;
1020in January 2005 Microsoft said it would ease licensing restrictions, but
1021although they made a few tweaks, they
1022never changed the license so all competitors could use their format.
1023</p><p>
1024<a href="http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1857298,00.asp">Jason Brooks’
1025article Masachusetts vs. Microsoft? (eWeek, Sep 9, 2005)</a>
1026opines that Massachusetts’ “Plan to move toward open formats
1027isn’t foolhardy if the state thinks it can better serve taxpayers
1028by escaping proprietary lock.”
1029His piece makes similar points to mine:
1030“I don’t blame Microsoft for doing what it believes is best for its
1031business -- but let’s not blame Massachusetts policy makers for doing
1032what they believe is best for their state, either...
1033Massachusetts has chosen to shift its default file formats
1034to those for which any developer or firm has an equal chance of
1035building an equally good application to create and consume these documents,
1036thereby ensuring choice and flexibility for itself and for its residents.
1037Where’s the controversy or zealotry here?”
1038Some discussion about recent Microsoft missteps (more generally) are noted
1039<a href="http://www.crn.com/sections/software/software.jhtml?articleId=170703809">in this CRN article</a>;
1040hopefully they can get it together and deliver to their customers what
1041the customers are asking for.
1042
1043
1044
1045</p><p>
1046Feel free to see my home page at
1047<a href="http://www.dwheeler.com/">http://www.dwheeler.com</a>.
1048You may also want to look at my paper
1049<a href="http://www.dwheeler.com/sloc"><i>More than a Gigabuck: Estimating
1050GNU/Linux’s Size</i></a>,
1051my article
1052<a href="http://www.dwheeler.com/oss_fs_why.html">Why OSS/FS? Look at
1053the Numbers!</a>, and my papers and book on
1054<a href="http://www.dwheeler.com/secure-programs">how to develop
1055secure programs</a>.
1056
1057</p><p>
1058(C) Copyright 2005 David A. Wheeler.  All rights reserved.
1059Some of this material was posted
1060earlier in <a href="http://www.groklaw.net/">Groklaw</a>.
1061
1062</p></body></html>
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