Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Rock, the Hard Place, and the Open Format

You may have heard about Massachusetts plan to switch over entirely to open document formats for all government documents. Those formats to include the OASIS-group's ODF (Open Document Format) but not Microsoft's new XML format.

If so, you may have heard that Microsoft has so far refused to even consider building support for ODF into Word, and is trying to get MA to change their mind and either include MS XML (because although it's patent-encumbered, it's 'open enough') or exclude ODF (because it's 'not mature/feature-rich enough' and 'untested in real business use'. They've also made a huge issue out of the fact that there are no ODF reads for the blind, which ignores the facts that (a) there easily can be, and (b) other open formats, such as PDF, can be used in most cases, for visually-impaired users, and lastly (c) MA has made it clear that documents can be transferred into MS Office format for the use of the visually-impaired).

If you haven't, then let me tell you: MA is planning to switch to open formats, and MS is both refusing to support that format, and trying to prevent that format being used.

If you've ever looked at how many formats Word supports in the "Save" window (22 on my XP machine, including the open formats TXT, RTF and HTML, and the format of competitor Word Perfect), you might wonder why MS are spending so much time slagging off ODF, a standard that they actually helped to create (MS are OASIS members), when they could just build support for ODF into Word.

So I thought I'd tell you.

There are other word processors on the market than Microsoft's. Possibly the most well-known at the moment is Sun's OpenOffice, a free and open-source office suite. There's also AbiWord, StarOffice, and various others. None are as feature-rich as Word (or if you're less kind, none are so hideously bloated as Word), but they all support, or will support, ODF.

They also have some support for Word's .doc format. But it isn't very good: You can never be sure that an OpenOffice .doc file will look the same as it does in Windows. A simple document will probably render fine, but when you start messing around with margins, headers, footers, and the like, all bets are off.

This is a problem if you have large numbers of large documents that use complex formatting saved in .doc format, and want to stop paying for MS Office and use the free OpenOffice alternative. You can't just automatically change the document formats over: The conversion just isn't good enough. There's only one piece of software in the world that can render .doc files properly. MS Word. Right now, that means that if you need access to .doc files, you have to buy & use MS Word.

Has the light dawned yet?

If MS Word had support for ODF built in, then it would be capable of "translating" .doc to .odf with 100% accuracy - unlike any other word processor out there right now. This would remove one of MS's most enduring customer binds: It would make it very easy to convert all your .doc documents to the non-proprietary ODF format.

And once you've converted everything to ODF, you can use any of the multitude of cheaper, or even free, office suites instead. You would only have to pay for Word if you wanted to.

Even worse, MS Office is one of the biggest reasons why customers have to use Windows. To use .doc, you need Word; to use Word, you need Windows. You must pay for both.

Without .doc, you can use another office suite on another OS. You can get both free.

That's why MS is so frightened by MA's decision to use ODF. MS are so used to people being forced to use their products, they're terrified by the idea of a level playing field where people can use whatever they want. (It says a lot about how good they think their products are when they think the only way to get people to use them is to make it impossible to use alternatives, doesn't it?)

If MS builds in ODF support, then people will be able to use any software they like. Result: More people migrate away from MS.

But if MS doesn't build in ODF support, then nobody will buy MS Office, because proprietary formats won't be allowed. Result: More people migrate away from MS.

From MS's perspective, MA is a "rock and a hard place" situation. They can't support ODF, and they can't not support ODF.

So what should we expect to happen?

MS will do absolutely everything in their power to get ODF struck off as a viable alternative, or to get their own XML format added as a viable alternative. When they finally fail, and fail they will, they'll implement ODF support so fast it'll make your head spin.

The ideal for MS is to keep Pandora's box closed and stop people being able to use anything but MS products. But if the box gets opened, then they have only two options: Compete fairly, or become extinct.

They'll take a decrease over an extinction any day.


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