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Beware the Vapourware (Microsoft to Save ODF Bunnies, End Global Warning)

What did mother tell us about empty promises and what about the boy who cried "Wolf"?

It's deja du all over again. Microsoft claims it will support ODF.



The other day we shared a court exhibit which explains very clearly how vapourware can injure competition/competitors by "freezing the market" (the terminology is used internally by Microsoft) and also disappoint users.

It is safe to judge a person or a company based on repeated past behaviour -- a track record, a pattern, a history. That's just why the 'big announcement' from Microsoft deserves to be taken with a grain of salt.

Among the first sources to have spread this news (except for Microsoft of course) was Andy Updegrove, who wrote this:

Regardless of the motivation, today's announcement is indeed good news for everyone that believes in open document formats in general, and in ODF in particular. Once Office users can round trip documents with ODF users, and vice versa, the frequency of that process should begin to increase. Hopefully, Microsoft's years-long delay in agreeing to participate in the ODF working group will allow better interoperability as well over time.


While this is very welcome and it's also a big win for ODF, bear in mind that Microsoft 'supported' ODF before, but this support was so horrible that it gave a bad name to ODF and discouraged its use. Stories about this go as far back as early 2007 or 2006. See this post for example.

Amongst those who were a step ahead of the hype there was Steve Stites, who saw the hidden possibilities.

Now Microsoft customers are faced with the Microsoft vaporware problem. Microsoft is asking customers to hold off buying any ODF compliant software until Microsoft produces one. Any Microsoft customer who is planning to move to ODF must ask themselves the following questions before they decide to wait for Microsoft to fulfill their promise.


Microsoft's support announcement (not implementation) is hardly a panacea. It's scarcely a solution to anyone at this stage. Another decent comment reveals the true motives at play.

Scott at Beta News is a Windows expert who has written many books on the subject, so his opinion and selected quotes from Microsoft employees should be approached only with prudence, even suspicion.

In a breakthrough development, Microsoft has announced its future editions of Microsoft Office, beginning with Service Pack 2 for Office 2007, will enable users to choose OpenDocument support as an alternate default option.


"Breakthrough development," as Scott puts, seems like an exaggeration. It will be a breakthrough when they *IS* development. All we have now is some announcement on some Web page.

Remember the promises Microsoft made about Vista. It delivered a service pack many months late and it was chaos. It seemingly introduced more problems than it resolved, but it kept people patiently hoping, possibly tolerating the aches of Windows Vista or locking in some entire enterprises that foolishly adopted it early on when there was artificially-generated hype everywhere (Microsoft spend half a billion dollars on advertising in late 2006 and early 2007 in order to conceal what it had already known too well, based on court evidence divulged in a class-action lawsuit).

CNET too seems enthusiastic about the announcement from Microsoft, but words are cheaper than deeds.

Now, the company is going a step further by building ODF and PDF support directly into Office. In addition, customers will now be able to set ODF as the default file format in Office 2007.


Meanwhile, over at Groklaw, the findings from a New York State study are shared and they suggest that multiple formats are detrimental as a whole. In other words, OOXML was never needed in the first place.

What did they find? You can find the "Major Findings" on page 8 of this PDF, part 1 of the study. The most significant finding is that having more than one format doesn't provide increased choice. It confuses and increases complexity and costs instead. It would be better to use single, standardized formats to increase efficiency and interoperability. Well, we all tried to tell ISO that Microsoft's argument was wrong. They didn't listen, but that doesn't mean that governments will just fall into line. It's obvious that if you want interoperability, you need to agree on one standard everyone can use equally.


In case you wonder what led to Microsoft's latest 'acceptance' of ODF, which some said was inevitable, it's not goodwill or openness. That's just a convenient excuse. It's like the use of 'charity' to make an endowment to political entities. The press would label it "humanitarian causes" while in reality it can be bluntly described as "bribery". We provided some examples of this over the past year.

“Another bonus for Microsoft here is an escape from scrutiny and/or further fines.”What led to a change of heart in this case? It's most likely the fact that Microsoft loses government contracts. It also risks losing business because large nations in Europe, for example, simply refuse to touch OOXML. They require ODF and sometimes PDF as the adjunct static document format. Mind the fact that Microsoft opportunistically keeps -- or at least squeezes in -- its duplicity with XPS in the announcements above and it wants it standardised too (multiple ISO standards for achieving the same thing).

Another bonus for Microsoft here is an escape from scrutiny and/or further fines. While the sheer abuse of the process won't be pardoned, there are the fresh complaints from BECTA, for instance.

Lastly, recall the frustration at the requirement for ODF (and particularly FOSS) in South Africa. Remember who it has that has just gotten back from there (lobbying against ODF, probably without any success) and who it is that's largely involved in the announcement above. Coincidence? Maybe; maybe not. That man is Jason and he's quoted at the bottom just to remind you who he really is. Microsoft isn't being 'nice' and 'fair', but it wants the its press to characterise it that way. Microsoft just plays its cards right.

In summary, we have another victory for ODF, but the implications for FOSS (OpenOffice.org for example) are a more complicated question. Additionally, Microsoft Office is pressured by some nations at the moment. That's the subject of the next post.

[More Open Than Open]: “I am constantly amazed at the flexibility of this single word.”

--Jason Matusow, Microsoft (for background see [1, 2])



OOXML data vacuum
There are still some missing options

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