21 May 2007

Microsoft's New Mantra: Choice Is Good

Recently I was bemused by Microsoft's espousal of ODF, and now here we have the company spreading more joy:

The company on Monday is expected to announce that it is sponsoring an open-source project to create a converter between Ecma Open XML--a set of file formats closely tied to Microsoft Office--and a Chinese national standard called Unified Office Format (UOF).

I think I understand what Microsoft is up to.

Until recently, its approach was to try to block ODF at every twist and turn: the last thing it wanted was another standard - much less a truly cross-platform, open one - to join the club of approved formats.

That strategy has failed: ODF is being chosen or is on the brink of being chosen by more and more governments around the world. And where governments lead, local business will follow. Microsoft is now faced with the prospect of losing its monopoly in the office sector. Indeed, it risks being locked out completely, as more and more countries opt for ODF only.

So I think Microsoft has decided to cut its losses, and go for a very different approach. Given that it can't shut out ODF, and there is a danger that Microsoft's OOXML will not be selected alongside it, the company is now pushing very hard for as many standards as possible: the new mantra being "Choice is Good". The point being, of course, that if you have lots of competing standards, then the one with the largest market share - Microsoft's - is likely to have the advantage.

It's a shrewd move, because at first blush it's hard to argue against having choice. But the flaw in this argument is that choice has to occur around the standard, through competing implementations, not between standards. In the latter case, all the benefits of open standards are lost, and the status quo is preserved. Which, of course, is exactly what Microsoft is hoping to achieve with its sudden rash of generosity.


Anonymous said...

An excellent summary. Microsoft is choosing its words carefully, taking crafted, surveyed political terms to frame their MS-OOXML marketing. However, I'm confident that MS-OOXML will only be relevant to Office 2007 and beyond, for those who choose to buy and use that format. It will never be free of Microsoft, and thus you'll forever have to pay for its use, as no converter will ever be accurate to satisfy anyone with interoperability needs.

The answer? Go with ODF now and save untold future headaches. It's that simple.

Glyn Moody said...

Even though it is that simple, it's not clear how well people will be able to navigate through the increasingly muddied waters of this debate.

At least it won't be dull.