Anyone Remember IBM’s MCA?

Monday, 2007-January-08 at 14:30

Correct me if I am wrong, as I could not find any information from that time period to refresh my memory.

Back in the 1980s, IBM came out with their PC.  With an open architecture, competitors soon entered the market with "clone" computers.  Later in the 1980s, as companies like Tandy/Radio Shack and Compaq were eating IBM's market share, selling clones for greatly reduced prices, IBM decided to improve the PC and to use those improvements as a way to stave off competition.

They came out with the PS/2 series of computers, most of which had a different bus architecture, called MCA, for MicroChannel Architecture.  They then announced that competitors that wanted to use MCA in their products could license the right to do so, but that these competitors might need to also pay fees for past use of what became known as the ISA (for Industry Standard Architecture) bus in their products.

In fact, most of the clones went on with ISA and later an extended version of ISA called EISA before moving to PCI in the 1990s.  Despite any advantages of MCA, IBM's pricing was still significantly higher than its competitors.  It's product line continued to lose market share to cheaper ISA models.  If I recall correctly, more add-in cards were available for ISA/EISA than for MCA, and this continued to be the case for the entire period of time that MCA products were on the market.

This is a good lesson to be aware of.  Right now, the advantages of XML-based files for office applications are well-known.  OpenDocument Format, an industry-wide specification, is designed to enable all competitors to implement it.  On the other hand, Microsoft, which has monopoly market share in the market, is pushing a much-less interoperable XML-based format, OOXML, in the hope that its format will continue to lock users into buying only its products.

What to do?  Well, to begin with, efforts to reverse-engineer the Microsoft binary formats that have been used in older versions of its products must continue.  This has been a key part of establishing their monopoly—once their product reached a certain share of the market, users of other products that could not faithfully read and write their formats were forced to either switch or to use two office application suites.  One of the big leverage points that Microsoft will use to push OOXML will be "compatibility" with existing data files, so it is advantageous to publicly advertise the lack of compatibility that their newer products have with existing data files, especially when compared with the efforts of competitive products.

Secondly, and this is very important, contact Microsoft and other vendors and ask them in writing to offer full native support for OpenDocument file Formats in their applications.  Write physical letters—snail mail—to their marketing and support addresses.  Emphasize the fact that ODF is an ISO standard, and tell them truthfully whether this will be a factor in deciding which products to purchase (and how many licenses you will purchase because of this factor).  Offer to evaluate their products and help them improve their compliance with the ODF 1.1 standard.

Thirdly, and this is just as important as the second point, write to your local government agencies and object to the use of changing and proprietary file formats, such as .DOC and .XLS in public documents.  Insist that they make all public documents available in ODF formats (such as .ODT and .ODS) because they are public agencies and should make information freely available for all citizens, and not just citizens that purchase one kind of software.  For example, if you lived in California's San Bernardino County, you would write to the state, to the county, to whatever town or city you were in (and nearby towns and cities), to the regional water quality board, to the regional air quality board, to whatever special districts were in your area (parks, water, sewer), and to the school district.  Write to your local libraries and request that the public access computers have the ability to read and write ODF documents.  One thing you can do is make the argument that they are potentially violating your local open access laws, assuming that you can find what those laws are.

To those same agencies, you can discuss accessibility issues, pointing out that ODF formats and applications are getting accessibility designed into them and that the formats use XForms and iAccessible2 (see Andrew Updegrove's discussion at, and will therefore work with accessible Web tools (e.g., Firefox, XHTML) also.  Mention the fact that there are ODF-capable applications available for (at least) Windows, Macintosh, Linux, FreeBSD, and Solaris, so that this gives them the ability to support handicapped users on any major operating system.

Fourth, if you are a developer, try to work ODF data formats into your applications wherever it makes sense.  That is, if you are writing an application to pull keywords from resumes, be sure to make it work with ODF data files as well as the legacy proprietary formats.  Begin supporting open standard file formats wherever you can.

Fifth, do not pretend that ODF is perfect.  If you know of a place where it is weak, contact OASIS and ask them to improve that area in the next version of the specification.  For example, I recently read about some things about tables that could stand some improvement (at least in the implementation).

Entry filed under: Computers, ODF, Software, XML.

Using JS With Accessible Sites Opening ODF (.odt, .ods, .odp, etc) Files

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