MSFT: Let’s Do VHS Versus Betamax All Over

Friday, 2007-March-09 at 22:32

Let market decide on open standards – Software – News – ZDNet Asia

Bill Hilf, general manager for platform strategy at Microsoft, said themarket should decide what the prevailing standard should be in the warbetween the company’s Open XML (extensible markup language) document format and the ODF.

“It’s like VHS versus Betamax, where the market selectedthe one it wanted based on values,” Hilf told ZDNet Asia in a phoneinterview Thursday. VHS eventually emerged as the more widely adoptedvideo recording standard in the late 1980s.

“You want the customers to vote with their wallets,” Hilf said.”The most healthy market environment is where there is competition.”

Ask anyone who spent good money on the losing format: consumers do not like this. If you are the winning vendor, or you think you will be the winning vendor, of course you like it. You stand to reap a harvest of converting customers who give up on their previous choice. However, consumers fear making the wrong choice and being stuck with the consequences.

How many people are truly looking forward to the extended struggle between HD-DVD and BlueRay? Outside of those who have financial interests in one side or the other, I’d venture to say very few people are desirous of buying a DVD and finding that it is made for that other format.

At the same time, Gartner noted, Microsoft appears to have come to terms with the increasing acceptance of the ODF [standard], especially within the public sector, and with the necessity of providing some level of interoperability.

Hilf said: “One of the most important things that we’ve done in the past year is to initiate work around the translation between the two [ODF and Open XML] formats.” Microsoft last month released a translator plug-in that converts Open XML format to ODF, as part of an open source project sponsored by Microsoft.

“I think we’re making some good progress on how we’re interacting with the community, to make sure there is less friction inan environment where there are multiple standards existing,” Hilf said.

Really? Is that what you think? In the enterprise, people are groaning over the potential difficulties. If your state government goes with one format, while the federal government goes with the other, and your overseas branch has to deal with still a third format, how are your IT staffers going to handle this? At home, many of those who are aware of this discussion are starting to wonder if the Dark Lord of Redmond bet his whole pot on a losing hand, while others feel that Microsoft has always won before, so they are likely to win again.

Once again, vendors are placing the risk on their customers. Make that one vendor is placing the risk on its customers. If, you are a cash-strapped college that just ponied up the bucks to get Microsoft Office 2007 and OOXML flops in the market, you cannot rely on a half-functional converter plug-in to make your graduates competitive in the job market. If you are an individual who needs to create resumes and fill out government forms with your office applications and you make the wrong choice, you are out whatever funds you spend on two office applications suites, plus any documents that you created in the losing format.

Gee, it sounds just like someone who bought a Beta VCR, only to find VHS overtaking and finally supplanting the Beta format in the marketplace. The vendor places your wallet and your documents at risk in a game of brinksmanship, trying to force buyers to remain with their products.

He dismissed suggestions that Microsoft has to support the ODF format natively to demonstrate it was serious about enabling interoperability. He noted that Microsoft Office and OpenOffice, which default file format is the ODF, are vastly different.

“The way objects and data is manipulated in Office is fundamentally different, technically, from the way OpenOffice works,”Hilf said.

“A boat and a car both provide transportation, but they’re radically different,” he said. “That’s something that a lot of people don’t understand–they look at the surface and say that it’s just a productivity suite or text editor, and that the same format should just be used.”

“The ODF is absolutely not we could use as a format forOffice [sic]–it’s technically not the right thing to do, and it wouldn’t work,” he added. “I can’t take the design of a car engine and stick that into an airplane.”

This relies upon the fiction that OpenDocument Format (ISO/IEC 26300:2006) is simply a memory dump (a direct translation from memory to disk) of OpenOffice.org/StarOffice. In fact, ODF was designed from the start to be useful for any office applications suite. Each of the products that are implementing the format has 85% to 95% compliance with Microsoft’s now-deprecated binary formats, including the ability to read some versions that can no longer be read with Microsoft’s own products, so all of this capability was also built into the format.

Perhaps Microsoft’s chosen formats (ECMA 376, OOXML) are simply memory dumps of their office applications suite. That would explain why their employees keep making this crucial mistake in their statements. If so, that is an abysmally bad practice, and they need to change it.

The idea of translators plug-ins, Hilf said, is more realistic and necessary for interoperability. “The key is to make sure the people who have commercial interests are committed to the open source community, to make sure these translator tools are as effective as possible,” hesaid.

Again, put the risk on the customer. Let’s say that company X has a policy of using ODF as their file format, but uses Microsoft’s office applications suite. This has ensured that nearly every employee will forget to go through the full sequence of clicks to get the company’s format, meaning that such a company is guaranteed to have to deal with both formats, despite any policies to the contrary.

Anyone reading this babbling should take a look at Rob Weir’s discussion of what words like interoperability, open, innovation, freedom, and choice mean when coming from the mouths of Microsoft employees.

Glyn Moody of Open Dot Dot Dot believes that this is the first glimpse of Microsoft admitting defeat.

This is interesting: it’s the first time that I’ve come across Microsoft expressing any kind of doubts about OOXML, its rival to ODF, romping home to become an ISO standard.

He is referring to an interview with Jason Matusow in Computer Business Review Online, in which the rocky reception OOXML has received was acknowledged.  Coupled with Hilf’s words, we have an indication that inside of the company, there is a concern that OOXML could be down for the count.

A word of advice to anyone who is considering the purchase of Microsoft Office 2007: Until this file format competition resolves itself, you are the one with something to lose. Your best bet is to hold off for at least 18 months, until we see whether the OOXML format is even still in use at that time. In the mean time, you can download OpenOffice.org (OOo) and use the .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats that you are used to using. During my Master’s Degree program, I used OOo and Microsoft Office XP interchangeably, including for group projects. The other members of my groups never knew which product I was using. OOo can not perfectly read and write Microsoft formats, but neither can different versions of Microsoft’s own products.

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