Microsoft’s Love Letter to IBM and the Shape of Things to Come

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.

For further blog entries on ODF, click here

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Comments (13)

  1. Thank you for keeping Microsoft’s refusal to "play" at the ODF table in view.  To me, it speaks volumes about their view of interoperability and choice.

    D.C. Parris

  2. first of all, thanx for the article

    isn’t m$ using all of its unethical monopolistic tactics all those years? what choice are they talking about? the one they’ve been offering by using "strictly closed" binary formats? if they cared about interoperability why haven’t they provided a "layer" for other programmes in order to work with their document formats?

    jeez, it’s as if i’m a robber for years and now i’m complaining that others are not fair to me. don’t misunderstand me: i’m not saying that odf alliance should do what m$ did for all the past years. the odf alliance proved that by providing a _REAL_ open standard.
    m$ is only about ONE thing: LIMITING CHOICE/MONOPOLY so they can get your bucks


  3. Texas and Minnesota are the least of it.

    The Eueopean Union has been plagued  by states basing procurement on "standards" written around wahtever their national supplier were offering.

    In recent years this has been finally killed off. Any new standards must be based on international standards. Any significant procurement must be advertised in the EU journal. Procurement must be based on standards. If a procurement spec’n isn’t open to competitors to bid on then the competitors can go to court and have them start again.

    Yes. Any EU government which tries to buy more than £250 000 (I think that’s the figure) worth of word processors must specify their requirements by referring to ISO/IEC standards and must invite anyone to apply to get on the tender list. This of course also applies to all government owned / controlled / influenced agencies. In Europe that means most hospitals and schools as well as local authorities etc.

    It’s the law.

  4. Not sure whether you did it intentionally, but the title you used for your post
    mentioning "The Shape of Things to Come" reminded me of the
    Max Frost and The Troopers song:

    "… There are changes
    Lyin’ ahead in every road
    And there are new thoughts
    Ready and waiting to explode
    When tomorrow is today
    The bells may toll for some

    But nothing can change the shape of things to come …"

    Keep up with the great work !

    — vruz

  5. Andy,

    Thanks again for the update.  It’s always refreshing to read your articles, particularly from from someone who is so close to the action.  While much has been said about document formats, I think its time to turn some attention to messaging formats and standards.  While I might like Open Office and the Open Document Format, there is but one glaring omission from the whole plan: an open messaging and calendaring protocol.  A server that can connect to a client no matter which client you use.

    For example, I like Outlook for its functionality (not its security).  It can connect to many different servers, too.  But the best features are observed on Exchange server.  We all know that Microsoft has been very keen on controlling the messaging systems and packaging Outlook with their standard office programs.  All versions include Outlook.

    But I really don’t see that with any open source office suites that run on Windows.  Yes, we see it on Linux, but until a complete, integrated solution appears for Windows, message will remain as the great unmovable stone.

    it really is time for an ISO standard in collaboration servers, much like Exchange.  I have to give MS credit for putting it together on that.  Sadly, they made it almost impossible for other clients to connect to all the features.

    Keep up the great work, Andy!  Thanks!

    Scott Dunn  

    • There are standards that address this.  Many IETF standards exists for example exchanging calander information and free busy scheduling.  The problem has been that not many OSS or proprietary implementation exist and that some standards are overly complex and also not widely implemented.

      It might not be in the interest of calander server vendors to raise the spectre of their own lack of interoperability as their is in ODF.

      But all it might take is for someone to push it through ISO as a standard of standards.  A standard to groups together these things much like the Kolab server has grouped together components of the OSS stack to create an open groupware server environment based on various open standards such as IMAP, LDAP, etc.

  6. Microsoft has been maintaining their monopoly position by building barriers to customers converting to competing products.  ODF is a major breach of the Microsoft anti-competive barrier and Microsoft is fighting ODF tooth and nail.  I think that it is important for us to help generate political support for ODF in the ongoing battle between ODF and Microsoft’s proprietary formats.

    Another area where we need to put some effort into breaking Microsoft’s anti-competitive barrier is the contracts that Microsoft imposes on hardware manufactures to force them to ship Windows on every desktop computer sold.  We also need to force Microsoft into using open standards in networking, which battle is currently being fought out in the EU.

    Steve Stites

  7. Just wanted to say "thanks" for the several "attaboys" that people have posted – I’m glad that my coverage of ODF has been helpful. 

    Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have been thinking of the Shape of Things to Come lyric – but I wish I had.  It’s a good fit.  Finally, on the calendering front, I think I recall hearing recently that Mitch Kapor might finally be getting close to issuing his OSS calendering software; I wonder whether he would consider making it compatible, or encouraging others to do so, and if so, how technically feasible that might be?

     – Andy

  8. In exploring bias in the media it is well known that issues are usually reduced to a two sided fight.  It would not be in Microsoft’s interest to pick on multiple organisations as someone would smell a rat, so they chose IBM.  Why them, my guess is that nobody will see them as the underdog.  That people will assume that IBM is playing dirty, while it would be hard to assume that of the ODF Alliance.  IBM is fighting SCO, they must be bad boys fighting everyone and now picking on poor Microsoft.  The letter is at pains to show that Microsoft is all about standards and choice, and IBM wants to limit your choice and make sure that you can’t use the standards based OOXML.

    Imgine trying to make all that fly when the oposition is: IBM,, Sun, etc, etc.

  9. Microft just wants to connect ODF to IBM in order make people belive it is all about a IBM standard against a Open Microsoft standard. Smoke screens.

  10. Great post, Andy, and quite clarifying on many issues. That Microsoft chose to sit out ODF’s ISO process and decline input was only one part of a perfect storm of events set up against OXML (and to some extent Vista). This seems a desperate attack by Microsoft in defense of OXML. Instead of defending and showing how good OXML is vis-a-vis ODF, Microsoft chose to hit below the belt. Problem is, the strategy last week to send out blogger after blogger after story fell flat as readers responded, correcting many outright lies and disinformation written by those supporting OXML. ODF will forever be a better option than OXML.

    — Zaine Ridling

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