Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Microsoft Sees a Light, as Predicted

Official announcement from Redmond today: Microsoft will set up an open source project -- the Open XML Translator project -- to create a series of tools that allow translation between its (non-open) OpenXML format and OpenDocument (ODF) format. My prediction about ODF is coming true, and faster than expected.

Should we be surprised?


Microsoft has always left itself a loophole for supporting ODF by saying it would support it when its customers demanded it. When was the tipping point reached? Apparently decisions by the State of Massachusetts, City of Bristol, Australia's National Archives, Denmark, France and Belgium are enough. Recent rumblings by India's National Informatics Center likely sent shockwaves around the Redmond campus. MS was clear that governments were the catalyst for its move.

Sure, the Microsoft press release still contained plenty of FUD. Here's a sample: “Open XML and ODF were designed to meet very different customer requirements ... [and] ODF focuses on more limited requirements." Ah, no, sorry, ODF is designed to meet critical demands for long-term access to data and ensuring interoperability. Nothing limited or specialized about those demands. More importantly, however, MS is voting with its feet, and its actions speak louder than its archaic words. True, it is not bundling ODF into Office 2007. Now that would be a BIG deal. Consider this a baby step.

Suppporting ODF, even indirectly by supporting creation of a plugin, makes good business sense for MS. The trend line is clear and upward for ODF, driven by a strong business case for open data formats. And instead of simply standing on the sidelines while others develop software plugins that make ODF usable in Windows, MS has decided to directly aid in their development (as an open source project, interestingly). This is a good thing for at least three reasons:

(1) MS involvement can improve the integration and ease of an ODF-OpenXML Translator into Windows;

(2) It is unlikely to kill off ODF by offering a less-than-optimal plugin that must be separately downloaded and installed into Windows (though that may be MS's intention) because ODF remains the only truly open data standard, Vista raises serious backward compatibility and data privacy concerns, and plenty of customers want out from under MS's heavy thumb; and

(3) It moves MS slightly farther along on the "openness" continuum, and hopefully begins to erode some of that ingrained resistance to all things "open."

Maybe Microsoft is beginning to see that openness is good for business. It shouldn't be just a PR stunt.

And it's not yet the full support of ODF that should happen, as noted in my most recent post above or discussed in Information Week here.

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