A tale of two tipping points.
Microsoft’s Chris Capossela has published on MSDN an explanation of MS’s position on XML formats that is, I think, really important and useful.
Microsoft needs to stimulate new opportunities for their developers
Until HTML came along, only the people involved in text-based markup languages (SGML, LaTeX, remanant troff and proprietary formats, CVS and other homemade formats) could really put together large document systems successfully with low failure rates. Word macros and binary translators don’t cut it; they are a honeyed tar baby that traps you at a fairly low level of automation. With HTML and XML the ability to construct software as large systems of interchanged documents. Databases have had problems dealing with mixed content. And the tendency of office systems to embed active controls in data has served to keep non-markup-based text processing primitive. MicroSoft has long known this: publishing Encarta and other CDs certainly gave a chunk of MicroSofties good insight more than a decade ago, and one would expect the publishing and groupware backgrounds of Jean Paoli and Ray Ozzie to be contributing too.
Obviously the decisions of Mass., Belgium and other governments for ODF represent a bracing sea change that could severely disrupt Microsoft’s license revenues. But I think it is simplistic to think that MicroSoft has not been very aware that while their binary formats provide them some benefit from lock-in, the binary formats also prevent a lot of integration opportunities. And MicroSoft became successful by piggybacking on their system integrator networks.
What we have seen this week is the tipping point.
Microsoft needs and wants rapid evolution
Capossela’s most interesting quote is in a section on public sector organizations:
Microsoft believes that public sector organizations have a lot to gain from the rapid evolution to open, XML-based documents. We encourage public sector organizations to move to XML file formats but not to mandate a particular format or implementation. There will be many different XML formats around the world, and organizations should be able to pick the right one for them based on the principles of choice, competition, interoperability and the value delivered for each project. We believe strongly that public sector organizations should keep their options open in the fast-paced area of XML innovation, with vendor-neutral purchasing policies that enable agencies to choose the most appropriate technology for their needs, while establishing guidelines for interoperability.
People with what the Bible calls “party spirit” will latch onto the second sentence: Aha, they are trying to hose down ODF! But I think the first sentence is the real big picture. MicroSoft seems most interested in opening up the workflow and document management and value-adding capabilities that almost any XML brings, than on insisting on one format or another. The swing has tipped in the post-XML age, and the proprietary formats are preventing sales rather than promoting them. (A tougher regulatory environment and more critical procurement scrutiny also must have added to the voices of MicroSoft developers.)
Indeed, ODF may even work in their favour: the SourceForge ODF<->OOX plugin will prevent Microsoft from being locked out of the ISO-standards-requiring market. Indeed, MS may even be able to turn around the ODF marketing campaign and use it to promote the probably ECMA/ISO standard for the Open Office XML formats: you say standards are good, and now we are a real standard… And a loosely-coupled but perhaps lower fidelity format like ODF may actually be preferable to MicroSoft for .DOC and .RTF legacy documents from 1980s and 1990s, as their archiving on-ramp.
The recent delay in Office 2007 and the advance-on-all-fronts-at-the-same-time development strategy MS has adopted with ECMA Open Office guarantees that the format will be large, comprensive and be completed after the initial ODF format completes its ISO standardization. However, the fact that both bodies are under the same roof in ISO, coupled with the need to put on at least the appearance of openness, may in fact result in some genuine co-operation: MicroSoft mention they are very far ahead of ODF in the area spreadsheet formulas for example…it is not inconceivable at all that if the future probable Open Office standard is modular enough, ODF may consider adopting Open Office’s formulas by reference. And it is a smart move on another level too: it neutralizes a lot of the opposition to MS’ ISO standard aspirations: some representatives of, say, European national standards bodies may decide that MicroSoft is more serious about using standards to promote interoperability and actually appreciate Capossela’s point (which is something I have called for) that interoperability will be as much about guidelines (and XML governence) as it is about choices of formats, both for OASIS/ISO ODF and ECMA/ISO Open Office XML.
The decision to unbundle PDF and XPS is presented by Capossela as a matter of neatness and architecture: rather than plugins transparently merely being added to Save As dialogs, it seems that Office 2007 wants to trumpet the existance of plug-ins for import and export: some other bloggers have a beta screenshot that brings the commands up to a higher level in the GUI navigation hierarchy. That again suggests that MicroSoft see menus for input/output plugins as a slot that developers should have available for this and other workflow-based systems integrations.
When MicroSoft says We’ve been listening to our customers from around the world and we’ve heard loud and clear that document format interoperability is critically important and Microsoft believes that our investment in the Open XML document formats and the open approach we’ve taken toward embracing interoperability with other formats will benefit the entire industry. We’re excited to see the enormous early adoption of our product and our XML investments that means they have tipped. But, to labour my point, the tipping is not adopting ODF per se but adopting an open (XML), co-operative (ECMA/ISO), format-neutral (import/export plug-ins as first-class GUI items) approach to stimulate their modibund developer community who have been left dead in the water by .NET, C#, WS-*, Linq and Windows Live.
Differentiators: no longer just about the Muffin Borders
In previous blogs I suggested several things that MicroSoft would have to do in order to position themselves well for positive votes in ISO. Capossela has a section “Open XML Technology Meets the Most Demanding Customer Need” and I suspect it is a first stab at establishing one of the things I mentioned: clear differentiators from ODF.
A little bird told me that MicroSoft saw “muffin borders” as a key differentiator: in other words, page fidelity down to even rediculous MS-specific border graphics such as the “muffin border” was a key business requirement. A lot of documents are not destined to be retargeted and are not generically marked up; when Dad commits his recipes for muffins down to be printed, he wants it to look exactly the same each time he opens that file. However, “muffin borders” certainly are part of the archiving story but don’t fit into the retargeting story well. I don’t think load speed appeals to standards makers much too (and George Ou doesn’t help).
But compatability, accessibility, internationalization (Capossela doesn’t mention that one), digital signatures and extensibility will all sound good to standards-makers and standards-adopters.
A tipping point for customers too
However, I suspect that the rise of ODF and OOX will also introduce a cultural/regulatory change in the way that government documents work. In many cases, there is a strong need for publishing systems to paginate and linebreak documents in the same way each time. Especially when it is the formatted paper version of some document that is signed or sealed by an authority: you want to be able to send around an electronic version that looks the same, which is part of PDF’s value proposition.
But if, for example, governments start saying “We need interoperability” they too will come to a tipping point where they have to give up or reduce their stance that the the paper version is the normative one (rather than, say, a standard XML document valid against a standard schema and perhaps accompanied by a stylesheet in a standard format and with standard graphics and embedded data in standard non-binary formats, perhaps with a PDF or formatted version for reference purposes.) This will hurt PDF, XPS and Office Open XML and benefit ODF, I’d guess. But I don’t think MicroSoft cares much: they just want to be at the center of a vibrant market with a developer community who can go out and sell Office 2007-based systems to governments and business; at the end of the day, ODF is no more a threat to their profits than JPEG or HTML.