Thursday, February 15 2007 @ 07:25 AM CST
Contributed by: Andy Updegrove
Microsoft has determined that it is important to shine a bright light on IBM's activities that will have a negative impact on the IT industry and customers, including taking concrete steps to prevent customer choice, engaging in hypocrisy, and working against the industry and against customer needs. Microsoft will continue to be public in identifying the ways that IBM is trying to prevent customer choice.
-- Statement by a Microsoft spokesman on February 14, 2007
Back on January 25, I wrote a blog entry called OOXML v. ODF: What a Week! At that time, I thought that events of increasing importance were happening incredibly quickly, but it seems that both the frequency as well as the amplitude of this competition continue to increase. In this blog entry, I'll try to place one of this week's major events in context, while continuing to flag all news as it happens in the right hand column of this page.
Perhaps the most significant news this week was Micorosoft's decision to escalate the air wars by sending IBM a valentine, in the form of an open letter posted on February 14 at the Microsoft Interoperability Web page. In that letter, titled Interoperability, Choice and Open XML, Microsoft summarizes its position on the importance of the specification, it's passive role in the adoption by ISO/IEC of ODF, and most forcefully, it's contention that IBM is waging a global, hypocritical campaign to thwart the approval of OOXML in JTC 1. The letter is signed by Tom Robertson, GM Interoperability & Standards and Jean Paoli, GM Interoperability & XML Architecture. Paoli has been part of the public face of the ODF/OOXML debate for quite a while, while Robertson appears to have replaced Alan Yates in just the last two weeks as the most public spokesperson for Microsoft on OOXML.
The following extract comes from the section of the open letter relating to IBM:
When ODF was under consideration, Microsoft made no effort to slow down the process because we recognized customers’ interest in the standardization of document formats. In sharp contrast, during the initial one-month period for consideration of Open XML in ISO/IEC JTC1, IBM led a global campaign urging national bodies to demand that ISO/IEC JTC1 not even consider Open XML, because ODF had made it through ISO/IEC JTC1 first – in other words, that Open XML should not even be considered on its technical merits because a competing standard had already been adopted. IBM has declared victory in blocking Open XML, hyping the comments that were filed. IBM ignores the fact that the vast majority of ISO members chose not to submit comments and that most if not all issues will be addressed during the technical review still to come.
The action by Microsoft is hardly surprising, and perhaps even overdue. OOXML's first few weeks in the ISO process have not gone as well as Microsoft would have hoped, with many national bodies filing responses during the initial one-month contradictions period. Microsoft has taken the position that many of these comments will prove to be neutral (or even laudatory), rather than overwhelmingly negative, but in the not-too distant future the comments themselves will become public. In fact, one has leaked out already: the Australian comment letter could be found yesterday here, but as I write this today, the link is dead.
If in fact the comments received by JTC1 are largely negative, as I have been led to believe, Microsoft will need to revert to a Plan B – such as a conspiracy theory by ODF-compliant vendors "to limit customer choice" (on which more below). Microsoft seems to be heading in this direction, since instead of characterizing the comments received as a "handful of responses," as compared to significant number of contradictions, it is now focusing on the resolvability of any contradictions that have been offered. It remains to be seen, however, whether such a rigidly constrained specification offers the possibility of resolving all contradictions while still preserving the intention of preserving the format and integrity of those billions of legacy documents created in prior versions of Office.
Still, it would be inaccurate to pretend that there is no opposing behavior behind Microsoft's accusations, because in fact there is significant commercial opposition to OOXML. Clearly, there are vendors aligned on the ODF side that have just as great a commercial interest in seeing ODF succeed (and, more significantly, seeing OOXML fail) as Microsoft has in maintaining its near-monopoly in office productivity software.
Why focus solely on IBM? In fact, while Sun has been a vocal proponent of ODF, it seems to be standing largely on the sidelines regarding OOXML's fortunes within ISO. In contrast, IBM has not been shy about voicing its opposition to OOXML approval, although more frequently through the blogosphere (where statements are invariably prefaced with the caveat that they are only the opinions of the individuals sharing them) than in open letters.
Chief among those blogs are those of IBM's Bob Sutor and Rob Weir. And on matters other than OOXML and ISO, Sun has been well served by its own employee-bloggers, principally Simon Phipps, Tim Bray, Erwin Tenhumberg and Peter Korn. In fact, another development this week was the escalation of ODF blogging within Sun to the vendor's flagship blog – the one written by Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who championed ODF for the first time on February 12. The pro-ODF drumbeat has of course been echoed at many other blogs around the world, including this one.
In the next part of the open letter, Microsoft makes a point that is superficially appealing:
This campaign to stop even the consideration of Open XML in ISO/IEC JTC1 is a blatant attempt to use the standards process to limit choice in the marketplace for ulterior commercial motives – and without regard for the negative impact on consumer choice and technological innovation. It is not a coincidence that IBM’s Lotus Notes product, which IBM is actively promoting in the marketplace, fails to support the Open XML international standard. If successful, the campaign to block consideration of Open XML could create a dynamic where the first technology to the standards body, regardless of technical merit, gets to preclude other related ones from being considered.
Observing that the approval of a first standard could preclude the success of any later, better standard has a compelling sound. The back story that's missing from that otherwise appealing logic is that Microsoft could have opted to join the ODF technical committee at OASIS many years ago, and then worked towards creating a standard that would have worked for all purposes, for all vendors, and for all end users. It made a strategic gamble at that time to stand aside, and hope that ODF would, like many other standards efforts, fail to gain traction in the marketplace. That has proven to be a bad bet, but that does not mean that Microsoft should be entitled to escape the consequences of its own decision. Whether its gamble will ultimately play out to its advantage will be determined by the eligible national body members of ISO, however, and not by any individual vendor, or group of vendors, no matter how much influence they may try to exert.
The import of the next section of the open letter may be less obvious to those that are not following the ODF/OOXML story closely. That section reads as follows:
The IBM driven effort to force ODF on users through public procurement mandates is a further attempt to restrict choice. In XML-based file formats, which can easily interoperate through translators and be implemented side by side in productivity software, this exclusivity makes no sense – except to those who lack confidence in their ability to compete in the marketplace on the technical merits of their alternative standard. This campaign to limit choice and force their single standard on consumers should be resisted.
Microsoft is presumably laying the groundwork here for an ongoing campaign that will link the ISO process to recently introduced legislation in Minnesota and Texas. The two bills in question use the same definition of an open standard, and would control procurement by the respective states through legislation, as compared to internal rules, as was the case in Massachusetts. Such bills, if successful, would indeed set criteria for procurement that vendors would have to decide whether or not to meet, at the cost of losing sales if their decision is not to conform.
Is IBM behind these legislative efforts? I believe that the common link is likely to the ODF Alliance, which was formed for the specific purpose of educating and supporting governments of all levels, in all countries, about the virtues of open formats. I assume that IBM is a strong supporter of that organization – but so are countless other vendors, governments and NGOs. The Alliance was founded with 36 members on March 3, 2006, and now has many hundreds of members of all types throughout the world (lists sorted by geography can be found here). And if IBM is hard at work on the lobbying trail, Microsoft can hardly complain too strongly. Some of its own hardball tactics in Massachusetts have been conclusively documented by Carol Sliwa in a carefully researched series of articles in ComputerWorld.
The prerogatives of government as customers, and their obligations to their constituents, as public servants and custodians of history, are complex, and promise to be part of an ongoing dialogue for some time to come. It is likely that the open letter's claims in this regard will echo longer than its complaints of the ISO process. Certainly this will be so if similar other bills are filed in more states in the months to come.