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05.22.08

Taking Stock of Microsoft’s Vapourware Announcement

Posted in Antitrust, Deception, Europe, Formats, Free/Libre Software, Microsoft, Office Suites, Open XML, OpenDocument, OpenOffice, Standard at 1:56 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

GNOME GeditSome recommended readings and quick notes…

For those who are lost in translation or find themselves fooled by Microsoft’s PR pitch, which has already overwhelmed the media, here are some bits of information worth considering. We posted our views some hours ago and none have radically changed since then, having glanced at a lot more articles and perspectives.

The response from Marino Marcich you can find in The Register.

Don’t get too excited by this outbreak of peace. SP2 isn’t due until the first half of 2009, meaning you’ve got a good year before you can save an Office 2007 document using ODF. Ahead of that lies SP1, due at the beginning of June.

There is also no word on if, or when, SPs will be delivered that bring ODF and PDF to the vast install base of customers and developers working with older versions of Office.

Accordingly, the ODF Alliance, the group of vendors and national bodies leading ODF, has warned against premature celebrations saying we should wait and see what Microsoft actually delivers in SP2. ODF Alliance managing director Marino Marcich said the proof of Microsoft’s commitment to openness would be whether ODF support is on a par with Open XML.

He pointed to Microsoft’s promise two years ago to support ODF, when it backed an existing BSD project for an Open XML Translator. The project, to deliver an Office add-on to save documents in ODF, is also due in the first half of 2009. That software has not been finished, and it’s not clear whether today’s announcement for support will use the translator.

“Until Microsoft enables Office users to create and save in ODF by default as easily and fully as in Microsoft’s own formats, governments will continue to adopt a ‘buyer beware’ attitude,” Marcich said in a statement.

Significantly, Microsoft is not quite ready to give up on its ODF rival, Open XML, that it’s been busy railroading through standards bodies across the globe.

Another explanation of Microsoft’s strategic motives:

Indeed, while OOXML has garnered enough votes to pass, several major countries including China, India, and Brazil among others, voted against it. It is safe to assume that, in accordance with the opinion the expressed through this vote, those countries will not adopt OOXML as a national standard either. India has already decided so for one. I know the same is true for South Africa. The same will probably be true for others.

Now, think about this for a minute. This is a huge market that Microsoft cannot address with Office as it stands. Can they really disregard a market that size? I don’t think so. If not, what can they do about it?

Well, they can keep trying to fight countries decisions not to adopt OOXML but if they haven’t managed to achieve that already, despite all the efforts they put in, including some rather unethical if not illegal ones, their chances of success on that front are pretty slim.

The story he refers to when he talks about illegal efforts is probably scarcely understood. Not only has Microsoft used non-profits for influence. It paid them also, just days before the vote.

Vapourware comes not only to our own minds.

Ivar Jachwitz, the deputy managing director of Standards Norway, the country’s national standards setting body which adopted ODF as a recommended format for government archives, said the final proof of Microsoft’s commitment to ODF and interoperability will be seen next year, when the updated version of Office 2007 reaches consumers.”We have heard a lot of promises from Microsoft but as of yet, we are hoping for results,” Jachwitz said.

This person from Standards Norway must have seen not only the vote-rigging but some other interesting revelations too. Moreover, he could possibly just approach the Noway-based Opera for testimonies about Microsoft’s false promises and sometimes the obstruction of justice.

ODF formatLet’s consider some possibilities very quickly. Microsoft could ‘support’ ODF because:

  1. It was forced to do so, e.g. by regulators
  2. It needs to rescue or earn back contracts that it’s losing
  3. It has decided to be nice, convincing shareholders that it’s the better way to go (image over brutality)
  4. It cannot comply with OOXML, implicitly acknowledging that it's a broken specification

Looking at possibility (1) again, could the whole thing have come only after pressure from the European Commission? The following article was published only yesterday and its headline says it all.

Force Microsoft to Support ODF, Group Asks EC

The British government’s agency in charge of plotting IT usage among schools has asked the European Commission to force Microsoft to offer native out-of-the-box support for the Open Document Format (ODF) file standard in Microsoft Office, and not just Microsoft’s own OpenXML format. Without an easy way to support ODF in Office, children’s education will suffer, according to the complaint from the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, or Becta.

Open questions from Bob Sutor give away his reasons for skepticism:

In the interest of providing a bit more to think about beyond what was evidently said on this, here are a few open questions:

* What are the plans for supporting ODF 1.2, now reaching completion in OASIS?
* Will it be extraordinarily easy for users to set ODF as the default save format so that this becomes regular practice for most people?
* Will there eventually be backwards native support in versions of Office before 2007, or will people need to upgrade?
* Hey, Apple, what about you? Let’s see you do this in iWork!

In addition, also from the same blog, the newly-available New York State study that we mentioned earlier is further inspected here. It highlights the redundancy of a second standard.

Regardless of Microsoft’s motives, as was already argued earlier, this is a big win for ODF but not necessarily for Free software. It’s too early to tell because there are many factors to weigh. Erwin says that “OpenOffice.org will have a strong presence at LinuxTag 2008 in Berlin [Germany],” which is not surprising given the rapid adoption of ODF in that country and even strong ISV support for OpenOffice.org, especially in Germany. For those among the readers who develop software, this new blog which is called ODF Tools might be worth a glance too.

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23 Comments

  1. Alex H. said,

    May 22, 2008 at 2:15 am

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    I think you’re missing a few reasons why Microsoft would have done this. The really obvious one is “because they can’t let other office suites support more file formats than they do”.

    It’s a pretty simple reason, I know, but I find it a bit more believable than “EU weighs in” (EU doing anything fast is frankly a bit unbelievable ;) ) or “MS has a change of heart”.

  2. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 22, 2008 at 2:19 am

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    it’s a combination of factors. They did the right thing (for them).

  3. Alex H. said,

    May 22, 2008 at 2:33 am

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    Oh, absolutely they did the right thing for them, they basically have to by law (well, try to, at least).

    I think there is something in Matt Asay’s comments about Sharepoint: I disagree with him that Sharepoint is just lock-in at a higher level (he would say that; he’s Alfresco :) ) but I think he’s along the right lines that the office suite is becoming a commodity. Microsoft’s big issue with Office isn’t anything to do with file formats; the major problem is that they’ve run out of features to add. Arguably, we could all be on Office 1997 and there wouldn’t be much different.

    I have no doubt that some people won’t be happy with Microsoft’s ODF 1.1 support. I actually don’t think the quality of their support matters that much: I will continue to use ODF, Office users will continue to use ECMA 362. What matters is what happens after ODF1.2 and OOXML1.0. Can IBM and Microsoft work together?

  4. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 22, 2008 at 2:55 am

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    On certain projects they already do.

  5. AlexH said,

    May 22, 2008 at 3:17 am

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    It’s not the companies I worry about, it’s the people :)

    Welcoming noises being made by the likes of Rob Weir though, so it looks hopeful.

  6. Stephane Rodriguez said,

    May 22, 2008 at 4:43 am

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    Microsoft bullshit is just to tell customers to keep buying Office 2007 licenses, no need to look at alternatives. Classic EEE. More over on my blog OOXML is defective by design.

  7. Ball_Mer said,

    May 22, 2008 at 5:23 am

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    MS will burn in hell rather then support ODF

    Its all vapourware

  8. iLinux said,

    May 22, 2008 at 6:38 am

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    Bill gates took all the money and left MS with nothing but vapourware.

    He must be laughing his ass off on this…

  9. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 22, 2008 at 6:41 am

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    Stephane, thanks. I’ll mention your past-the-BS analysis later on. I’ve lost track of all the FOSS news because of this screen of vapour. :-)

  10. AlexH said,

    May 22, 2008 at 6:49 am

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    @Stephane:

    The behaviour you describe isn’t actually “classic embrace, extend, extinguish”: that has always been associated with treating something as a first-class citizen, not second class.

    If you remember back to the Netscape situation, IE4 was clearly the better browser by some distance. It behaved very similarly to Netscape, and sites designed to work with Netscape didn’t break often in IE4. It supported HTML better than Netscape did, and CSS was a lot better.

    If you’re afraid of EEE, then your fear ought not to be that Office’s ODF implementation is not very good; the fear ought to be that Office’s ODF implementation is excellent. If Office users started saving ODF files as a matter of course, de facto you would get ODF files that (e.g.) OpenOffice.org can’t open: ODF files with Office macros, for example.

  11. SubSonica said,

    May 22, 2008 at 7:31 am

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    Given its past record, I won’t ever trust Microsoft until I see the final results, and a lot can happen before the end of 2009 (if they ship on time, which I also doubt).
    The clear short-term strategy here is to stop people considering alternatives in order to keep their user base and network effect, as well as diminishing adoption of alternatives, in case Free Software adoption and perception reaches a critical mass, their business lock-in will fall as a house of cards.
    Notice the cornerstone supporting their monopoly over the Office suites market is the document formats exclusiveness (other Office suites can reproduce .doc, .xls, etc most faithfully but not yet quite 100% wich is needed for things like macros and some other exotic features).
    Once you don’t need the document format, you won’t need the office suite either (if you commoditize document formats, you open that market for competition wich is good for everyone except for the dominant player).
    Also, if you can get rid of Office, of course you can get rid of Windows!!! and that’s the end of the story for Microsoft. (That’s why they badly need to stop free-redistribution by trying to taxate Open Source with patent covenants -since microsoft cannot possibly compete in terms of freedom and no-licensing-costs, and I don’t see them re-converting their business model to one of a services company anytime soon -)
    Should OpenOffice.org be as superior to MSOffice as Firefox is to IE, it would be instant game over for Microsoft.
    OK, so if they can retain as many large customers (public institutions) as possible from switching to OpenOffice.org/Linux/BSD/Any_Free_Alternative_you_name_it, they will be able to get a hold in the next implementation of the ODF format in order to break it very much as they did with HTML, Javascript and Java, their aim is to de-commoditize the document formats and protocols to break the standards and keep their monopoly lock-in.
    Also, if they avoid public institutions from embracing FLOSS, they would enjoy a much more favourable climate for their lobbying efforts at trying to get favourable legislation changes that enable software patentability, thus making Free-redistribution of software illegal in practice or at least legally hazardous

  12. AlexH said,

    May 22, 2008 at 7:45 am

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    Good blog post by Michael Meeks on the topic.

  13. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 22, 2008 at 7:55 am

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    SubSonica,

    Yes, I agree 100%. Particularly, I think I neglected to mention the procrastination aspects earlier. When Microsoft says “2009″ there’s no guarantee and the company says nothing about the quality (fidelity) that’s guaranteed in SP2. It’s all just an attempt to freeze the market (it’s a good phrase because even Microsoft uses it, which shows how it treats ‘customers’ and secures lock-in).

    Alex, thanks for the link. I’ve been accumulating people’s thoughts on this and I’ll post some later.

  14. Stephane Rodriguez said,

    May 22, 2008 at 8:10 am

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    “It behaved very similarly to Netscape, and sites designed to work with Netscape didn’t break often in IE4. It supported HTML better than Netscape did, and CSS was a lot better.”

    The Netscape/IE issue was not technical. If you haven’t watched BillG DOJ anti-trust deposition, a 10-hour video, you owe it to yourself.

    “If you’re afraid of EEE, then your fear ought not to be that Office’s ODF implementation is not very good; the fear ought to be that Office’s ODF implementation is excellent. If Office users started saving ODF files as a matter of course, de facto you would get ODF files that (e.g.) OpenOffice.org can’t open: ODF files with Office macros, for example.”

    I’m not afraid. Keep this for you thanks. I’m explaining that the latest move from Microsoft is just a variation of what they have done for two decades. This is pure business influence, not technical. The intention is to ensure as little as possible corporate customers even think about testing an alternative product.

  15. AlexH said,

    May 22, 2008 at 8:12 am

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    I understand what’s being said about “freezing” the market. I’m not sure it applies here, though.

    If we’re honest, there aren’t many people who are going to be tossing up between OpenOffice.org and Office. If someone’s ready to go with (for example) OOo 3, having ODF 1.1 support in Office isn’t going to change the balance very much.

    On the other hand, being able to give people copies of OOo and not have to switch it out of ODF mode (which, like it or not, is a necessity for some) looks like it could be possible.

  16. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 22, 2008 at 8:14 am

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    The Netscape/IE issue was not technical. If you haven’t watched BillG DOJ anti-trust deposition, a 10-hour video, you owe it to yourself.

    http://www.groklaw.net/staticpages/index.php?page=GatesDepo

    We have some smoking guns here:

    http://boycottnovell.com/comes-vs-microsoft/text/

    I’m not afraid. Keep this for you thanks. I’m explaining that the latest move from Microsoft is just a variation of what they have done for two decades.

    http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/200x/2007/01/24/Mixup

    Those with long memories might suggest a parallel between Rick’s position and mine when in 1997, I was sitting on the XML Working Group and co-editing the spec, on a pro bono basis as an indie consultant. Netscape hired me to represent their interests, and when I announced this, controversy ensued. Which is a nice way of saying that Microsoft went berserk; tried unsuccessfully to get me fired as co-editor, and then launched a vicious, deeply personal extended attack in which they tried to destroy my career and took lethal action against a small struggling company because my wife worked there. It was a sideshow of a sideshow of the great campaign to bury Netscape and I’m sure the executives have forgotten; but I haven’t. Anyhow, I thought I had to point that out first before somebody else dredged it up, but I totally don’t think Rick’s status played in this story and I’m also 100% confident of his integrity.

  17. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 22, 2008 at 8:17 am

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    If someone’s ready to go with (for example) OOo 3, having ODF 1.1 support in Office isn’t going to change the balance very much.

    It’s a marketing routine and a way to circumvent policies. Forget about practicalities and think about the recent debacle down in SA.

  18. AlexH said,

    May 22, 2008 at 8:26 am

    Gravatar

    @Stephane: I’m not saying Netscape was pushed aside for technical reasons. What I am saying is that the traditional view is that “Embrace, Extend and Extinguish” requires as a first step a very good/market-leading implementation.

    If MS treat ODF as a second-class format, then they’re not embracing it, and no-one serious about ODF is going to use it. If no-one serious about ODF uses it, then it’s not in a position to wreck the format.

    I’m not saying that there couldn’t be problems with Microsoft’s approach, I’m just saying I don’t think you can describe it as EEE based on the premise of a poor initial implementation.

    For what it’s worth, I basically agree with you: I think Microsoft’s motivation is to make Office the “best” suite with regards features and file format support on the market, to the extent that people won’t consider other software. I just don’t think you can describe that as EEE, that’s all.

  19. SubSonica said,

    May 22, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Gravatar

    There’s another factor I had not considered enough: How the network effect will play in favor of MSFT over time:

    Why further is Microsoft is just trying to gain some more time (end of 2009)?, well as written by a groklaw commenter… [the more time passes, the more people are getting locked by the OEM installations of Vista coupled with 30-days-limited versions of Office that are shipped by some OEMS instead of MS Works (HP, to name one)]…
    [QUOTE]
    DOCX. This means current users of MS Office 2007 …
    Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, May 22 2008 @ 09:33 AM EDT
    will be building up a collection of docx documents which will potentially lock
    them into MS Office again.

    Currently I’m refusing to accept docx.

    [ Reply to This | Parent | # ] [/QUOTE]

  20. Stephane Rodriguez said,

    May 22, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Gravatar

    “If no-one serious about ODF uses it, then it’s not in a position to wreck the format.”

    Really? With their distribution power (500+ million licenses), Microsoft have the opportunity to stall ODF development to whatever implementation that is part of Microsoft Office. It does not matter if OpenOffice moves to 1.2, 2.0, as long as the fate of ODF is out of open source people hands. This would qualify as Embrace and Extinguish.

    What would be better is an distribution agreement between OpenOffice and Microsoft. A kind of Windows Update for Office, in which how ODF updates are shipped to users. This is the kind of thing you discuss very early, usually. That Microsoft went their way (the ODF implementation will probably be the work of an intern, as it usually is) only shows their true motive.

  21. Yuhong Bao said,

    May 22, 2008 at 12:51 pm

    Gravatar

    At least MS is admitting defeat for OOXML.

  22. master_chief said,

    May 22, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Gravatar

    “Really? With their distribution power (500+ million licenses), Microsoft have the opportunity to stall ODF development to whatever implementation that is part of Microsoft Office. It does not matter if OpenOffice moves to 1.2, 2.0, as long as the fate of ODF is out of open source people hands. This would qualify as Embrace and Extinguish.”

    You are forgetting that there is also a quite a significant number of OO.o installations…

    Check this..one more defeat.

    http://fci.wikia.com/wiki/Open_Letter_To_Mammootty#Mammootty.27s_Response

    This was regarding to the Open Letter published few weeks back

    http://fci.wikia.com/wiki/Open_Letter_To_Mammootty#Open_Letter_to_Mamootty_from_Free_Software_Community

  23. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 22, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    Gravatar

    That’s relieving news to hear. I wonder if it’s true that there was never a connection. If a person sneaks out early, then it’s possible to claim no connection was ever made. We might never know.

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