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Interop is Effectively a Noop (Article by Pandu Rao)

Pandu Rao contributes the following good article.

There is something Orwellian about the name "MS Interoperability". A more apt name would have been "MS Intraoperability" or even "MS Inoperability".

The unstated technical goal of any Microsoft application is to ensure that data can be shared only across Microsoft applications and systems. This ties into their strategic objective which is- Anyone wishing to exist in their ecosystem must pay Microsoft for that privilege. ISVs must pay to play. Binary formats have helped them further this objective.

”Another crucial advantage offered by binary formats is the ability to trigger forced upgrades that ripple through network effect thereby creating a continuous revenue stream.“SGML and Tex formats had been around long before Microsoft came up with RTF and DOC formats. Microsoft neither used these nor supported their use. All this can be summarized as "Use the format to bind the data. The users will follow; by way of ignorance, or incapacitation".

Another crucial advantage offered by binary formats is the ability to trigger forced upgrades that ripple through network effect thereby creating a continuous revenue stream. The binary format is a the catalyst that triggers this continuous revenue stream. You need a network effect for this to work and that is supplied by OEM contracts and IT managers reading advertisements in trade journals.

This worked well (and still does to a great degree) until the late 90's when developers learned firsthand the advantage of text over binary in the form of XML. XML was ugly to behold, but easy to use. Also, it achieved respectability by donning on the Web Services garb. It is, arguably, the first- and possibly the only- data format that corporate IT managers care about. This last point is important. And we shall soon see why.

Enter ODF



Along comes ODF and offers editable document-portability-and-longevity. Portability threatens the pay-to-play system set up by Microsoft as data can now leave the Microsoft ecosystem and end up in areas that Microsoft has no control over. Longevity threatens the crafty upgrade treadmill they have created for their users.

”Longevity threatens the crafty upgrade treadmill they have created for their users.“Despite being on the OASIS committee, Microsoft chose not to become a member of the ODF technical committee.

When it comes to common standards, Microsoft chooses to deny, delay, deflect and defuse. When the state of Massachussetts stamped ODF with a a seal of approval, that meant that ODF was a serious contender. Microsoft had failed to do all four. The damage had been done, they now had to move quickly to contain it.

Microsoft's response



The time allocated was not enough to create a genuine standard even if one was inclined to draft one for the purpose. So a lip service equivalent would have to suffice.

So how do you pull wool over the eyes of the corporate IT managers? Disguise the proprietary office document format in XML, add the "open" keyword and you get Office Open XML. Government bureaucrats who deal in technology might insist on a standard blessed by a body such as ISO. The FrankenISO-approved, psuedoXML-ized, misnomer called Office Open XML would provide all the check-marks minus the substance.

”The gullible trade journal reading IT managers will be taken in by the fact that it has to do with Microsoft and the abbreviation has Office in it."A lot of thought went into naming OOXML thus. It allows Microsoft to pay lip-service to openness, XML and standardization without threatening the revenue stream. For good measure, patents would be used on certain aspects as "hook-IP".

The gullible trade journal reading IT managers will be taken in by the fact that it has to do with Microsoft and the abbreviation has Office in it.

The superficially-aware IT managers might be taken in by the combination of of Open and XML factoids in the abbreviation.

That leaves the enlightened IT managers. When enlightened IT managers in enterprises advocate ODF, the Microsoft marketing team will be able to tell the enterprise executives that OOXML has parity on all aspects of ODF, plus backward compatibility with the enterprise's legacy documents, Sharepoint integration, etc. Therefore OOXML is a better option. The spare-me-the-details executives will mandate OOXML.

How should the FLOSS community respond?



  1. Aggressively promote ODF at every opportunity. For every copy of binary .doc or .docx saved, save a copy in ODF format. If novice users can download PDF readers to view PDF files they can download ODF viewers to view ODF files.


  2. Create light-weight, cross-platform ODF viewers (of standalone and browser plugin variety) . When the format is widespread, promote OpenOffice as the ODF editor.


  3. Completely shun OOXML support in FLOSS applications. As users, when you receive OOXML files, ask users to send you binary versions such as .doc or .xls (as you have not yet upgraded to Office 2007). Use every means necessary to keep the count of OOXML documents low.


It is the widespread use of HTML that forced Microsoft to provide an HTML editor. It is the widespread use of Lotus-123 that forced Microsoft to support the format in Excel. It is unlikely that Microsoft will offer native ODF support in Microsoft Office. But if the FLOSS developers support OOXML, we lose the only chance we have to break Microsoft's grip on office documents.

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