My blog entry from last Friday has sparked some commentary (a few examples are here, here, and here). One by Mary Foley particularly caught my eye, and moved me to respond to her. Here's the part of Mary's story that I thought merited a response:
Andrew Updegrove, cofounder of Gesmer Updegrove LLP and editor of the ConsortiumInfo.Org blog — as well as one of the leading opponents to Microsoft’s Open XML standardization effort — issued a dire prediction:
“If OOXML (Office Open XML), and now Microsoft XML Paper Specification, each sail through Ecma and are then adopted by ISO/IEC JTC1, then I think that we might as well declare ‘game over’ for open standards.”
I’ve been no fan of Microsoft’s methods for drumming up support for its standardization effort around Open XML. But I don’t see how the existence of multiple standards portends the end of open standards … even if a company that has abused its monopoly power is one of the players. Doesn’t “open standards” mean they should be open to the inclusion of technologies from anyone, even Microsoft?
Microsoft, like IBM, Sun and every other open-source and closed-source tech vendor needs to have its technologies designated as “open standards” in order to qualify for many requests for proposals, especially from government customers. That’s what’s behind Microsoft’s attempts to get standard status for Open XML and XPS.
I agree that there's nothing wrong with multiple contenders for "standardship," if you will. Mostly, though, it's a matter of timing. You might find this piece that I wrote last year interesting, where I try to distinguish between "standards competitions" and "standards wars:" It's part of an entire issue of the Consortium Standards Bulletin dedicated to standards wars.
What I call competitions can help bring products to market faster while allowing the best technologies to succeed – and ultimately become the basis of widely popular standards. Wars, on the other hand, can have many casualties (often you and me), don’t always result in the best technology becoming ubiquitous, and usually have only one winner.
Let’s look at some examples of each. The early competition between wireless standards began head to head between contenders such as BlueTooth, WiFi, HomeRF and others that are now forgotten – plus other standards that would use already existing wiring to accomplish a similar, if more limited, goal. By starting many horses in what was originally seen as the same race, the deficient ones (e.g., HomeRF) failed, while the good ones won, each shifting into the niches where they worked best – WiFi for networks, BlueTooth for device to device, and so on.
In a standards war, the opposite happens – VHS and Betamax being the most notorious example, where everyone loses, except for the patent owners underlying the winning standard. The Blu-Ray/HD-DVD contest going on today is, of course, the current replay.
So which way should we view the current face off – as a war or a competition? To my mind, it’s the former, because there’s already an available standard and (Adobe’s refusal to license to Microsoft on acceptable terms – or so we are told – aside), the only benefit to there being a second standard is to Microsoft, and this, to my mind, would further entrench it in the Office space, where it’s dominance has stifled innovation for going on decades.
Note also that in this case, Microsoft doesn’t have “billions of legacy documents” to protect, to provide cover for coming up what it calls a different standard (than ODF) for a different purpose (converting just Office documents, not creating competing products). In this case, Microsoft’s new standard would be. . . just another standard to do a job that another is already doing, and doing well I may be wrong, but I’m not yet aware that the Microsoft standard would provide great new features. Instead, it would be just another Microsoft version of something that already exists, like a work processor, spreadsheet, GUI, browser, and so on. Do we sense a pattern here?
And, of course, Microsoft is also making a plugin available, so all of its customers are already taken care of. So again, the need for a second standard for anyone other than Microsoft is . . . what?
I don’t have any problem whatsoever with Microsoft coming up with its own technology for saving documents in an equivalent format, or for it making that technology open to anyone under, for example, a covenant not to assert any Microsoft patents. What I don’t see is the need for that format to achieve official standard status. Would you really want another size light socket besides the one you have, now that the old models are everywhere?
The open question, of course, is whose fault was the breakdown with Adobe was, which provides the only real justification (to my mind) for Microsoft to be taking this action. We don’t really know, as we don’t know how many things were tied together and who asked for what. All we do know is what the two companies chose to tell us.
We do know that Adobe later committed the rest of its technology to ISO. Again, though, we don’t know if Microsoft then went back to knock on Adobe’s door again.
Net net, I see two scenarios here. If Adobe played false to its pledge to license its PDF patents on “reasonable and non-discriminatory terms” (RAND), then perhaps Microsoft is somewhat justified in playing hardball. Perhaps the Ecma announcement is only the opening salvo of a new licensing negotiation between Microsoft and Adobe. But if it was Microsoft that was being unreasonable, or if Microsoft’s Ecma submission is unrelated, then it seems like this submission has something in it for Microsoft, and no one else. If that’s the case, then I will be truly disturbed to see any resulting Ecma standard follow OOXML down the road to ISO/IEC JTC1
For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here