Adobe’s Open Standards Collateral Damage

It's now been more than a week since Microsoft announced that its licensing discussions with Adobe had fallen apart after four months of negotiations.  Microsoft's statement was sparse, although a few additional details could be picked up from  Brian Jones' blog.  A few day's later, Adobe's PR firm released a few comments in an email blast, indicating that Adobe might have no more to say on the matter.  All of which left many (including me) speculating on what may or may not have happened. 

 Adobe changed its mind (barely) on June 12, and posted a statement  in the pressroom section of its Website that added little additional detail to inform the public what in fact is going on.

While others have a variety of concerns relating to this chain of events, mine is very limited:  standards are created, and rely, primarily on a system of trust.  If someone violates that trust, it shakes the entire infrastructure to its core.  Did that happen here?  Nobody knows, except Microsoft and Adobe, and so far neither of them is talking.  Until one of them does, the incident casts a serious pall over the viability of the standard setting system.  Why? Because if Adobe is seen to have violated the rules with impunity and suffers no consequences, then what reason is there for anyone else to honor their commitments?

All of this could be cleared up quite easily, by either party making one of the following simple statements:

1.  Microsoft sought to license only those elements of the PDF specification that lie within the ISO/IEC specification with respect to which Adobe made its RAND declaration. 

2.  Microsoft sought to license more than those elements.

If the former is true, then (absent additional facts that have not been made public), Adobe would not have a leg to stand on under traditional standard setting rules.  Conversely, if the second statement is true, Adobe would be free to extract additional terms, at least insofar as the rules of AIIM, the standards body in which the specification was created, or of ISO/IEC, the global body that adopted the same specification.  Within reason, of course, since Adobe has substantial market power as well.

Instead of clarifying the situation, unfortunately, Adobe’s statement is a tease, reading in part (the italics are mine) as follows on the topic of open standards:

Adobe has been in discussions with Microsoft for some time, sharing concerns regarding features and functionality in the upcoming releases of Vista (the next version of Microsoft’s operating system) and Microsoft Office. While much of the press coverage to date has centered on disputes over PDF and XPS (a competitive technology to PDF) in MS Office and Vista, the real issue is the protection of open standards.

Adobe is committed to open standards. Adobe publishes the complete PDF specification and makes it available for free, without restrictions, without royalties, to anyone who cares to use it. Because we license the PDF specification so openly, it has become a de facto standard, used by hundreds of independent software vendors worldwide. No other specification is employed on as many hardware platforms, operating systems and applications as PDF. PDF is incorporated into a number of ISO standards, and Adobe encourages developers, independent software vendors and publishers to support and embrace it. While the specification is available publicly, customers expect Adobe to ensure that the format does not become fragmented and that competing implementations of PDF do not undermine what customers have come to expect in terms of reliable viewing and printing of PDF documents across platforms and browsers.

Microsoft has demonstrated a practice of using its monopoly power to undermine cross platform technologies and constrain innovation that threatens its monopolies. Microsoft’s approach has been to “embrace and extend” standards that do not come from Microsoft. Adobe’s concern is that Microsoft will fragment and possibly degrade existing and established standards, including PDF, while using its monopoly power to introduce Microsoft-controlled alternatives — such as XPS. The long-term impact of this kind of behavior is that consumers are ultimately left with fewer choices….

Adobe welcomes innovation and competition. We are confident in our ability to drive innovation and compete successfully given a level playing field. In our discussions with Microsoft, our motivation has been to maintain a fair, competitive landscape in the software industry. Any suggestions to the contrary are unfounded.

The most valid assumption, as I read it, is that the first statement posited above is the accurate one, and that Adobe is suffering a “what have I done?” moment.  If that’s the case, then it is simply tough darts for Adobe – and something it should have (and could have) anticipated before.

This is not to say that Adobe might not justifiably worry about “embrace and extend” or other concerns (besides pure commercial fears of lost revenues).  But that’s besides the point.   If it has antitrust concerns to air, it is free to do so – after licensing PDF to Microsoft on RAND terms.  Nothing in the standard setting process allows a submitter of technology to become a self-elected policeman after the fact.

What Adobe does not have the right to do is to hold a public standard hostage after voluntarily submitting it for adoption simply because it thinks that it might be damaged by giving one vendor the same terms that it has offered to others.  That’s expedient, wrong and damaging to the credibility of the standard setting system.

What Adobe – or Microsoft – should do as soon as possible is to state clearly which of the two statements above is accurate.  If the former is the truth, then like it or not, Adobe should live up to its RAND obligation.  (If it is true, then why hasn’t Microsoft said so?)

And if the second is the case, it should certainly reveal that ASAP – rather than risk subjecting the entire standard setting system to  collateral damage in its commercial spat with Microsoft. (But if this is true, why hasn’t Adobe said so?)

It’s all very frustrating – and very wrong.  

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Comments (3)

  1. I have to assume that Mickey$oft wishes to do the same to PDF that it has with XML, by adding to it, or changing it in some way, such that it could ONLY be read with a Mickey$oft PDF Reader, and not with the standard Adobe Acrobat Reader, or any other reader, that adheres to the Adobe PDF Standard. I can’t argue with Adobe’s response, providing that is true. No I haven’t read the Adobe PDF License, and IANAL.

  2. What I read between the lines is that:
    Adobe insisted on a contract prohibiting ’embrace and
    Microsoft refused.
    And then
    Bill & Steve unleashed the FUD machine.

    That’s all.

    Praise Adobe!

  3. Since either party could issue a statement that would clear up the issue and make the other party look bad, there must be a reason why such a statement is not forthcoming. Somebody does not want the issue cleared up. Whoever it is could very well have insisted upon secrecy before any negotiations started.

    Who could it be?

    In who’s interest is it to leave this question unresolved? I posit that the clear effect of the ambiguity is to cast a cloud over the standards setting process. Ask yourself the question "Who benefits from calling into question the standards set by international standardization bodies?" Or ask the opposite "Who benefits when ‘de facto’ standards look more attractive than ‘de jure’ standards?" Which party sells more product based on "de facto" than "de jour" standards? Which does the reverse?

    The answer to these questions is at least grist for speculation as to why the question is unanswered.

    Karl O. Pinc kop () meme ! com

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