Microsoft to Vendors: Let's Interoperate
If the European Union's constant
brow-beating of Microsoft
has had a positive effect, it's that Redmond has
opened itself up to letting its products work at least a little bit better with
those from other vendors.
Now, on the one hand, that's not all good news for Microsoft and its channel.
After all, the "better together" pitch that Microsoft has used for
years is a little bit weaker than it used to be. Prior to Microsoft's new era
of semi-openness, a decent pitch when selling one thing from Microsoft was that
a customer might as well buy everything else from Microsoft, too, because nothing
works with a Microsoft product quite as well another Microsoft product.
That was true, in part, because Microsoft sometimes (often?) made it difficult
and expensive -- which it had every right to do, RCPU says, although European
courts disagree -- for vendors to let their products work with Microsoft's wares.
In fact, the better together pitch is still valid, but Microsoft is in the process
of changing its meaning. Redmond isn't, and doesn't
want to be, quite as proprietary as it used to be. "Better together"
could now mean, at least to some extent, working "better together"
with other vendors.
And so, today, as part of its new message of openness, Microsoft unveiled the
Document Interoperability Initiative, a global effort aimed at bringing vendors
together to "promote interoperability between document format implementations,"
quoth the press
release, or, basically, to test how different document formats work with
each other on different platforms and try to develop templates that will allow
different formats to work -- that's right -- better together.
Microsoft calls the DII (our abbreviation, not Redmond's) the first effort
of its kind in the world -- and it will be global, with interoperability testing
and discussions starting in the U.S. and then moving to Asia (South Korea, specifically)
and Europe, Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and
standards, told RCPU at a little press get-together in Cambridge, Mass. this
"Our customers are telling us that some of them would like these templates
because they could be useful in certain contexts," Robertson said. "We
think vendors ought to come together to develop those. We want to be catalysts
for bringing people together."
And some vendors have answered the call. Novell, notably but not surprisingly,
was in attendance at today's event, as were a few smaller names -- specifically,
Mark Logic (which sounds like some sort of nerd superhero), Quickoffice, DataViz
and Nuance Communications. So what about, say, Adobe, Microsoft's rival and
the originator of the PDF?
"We work with Adobe in a lot of different ways," Robertson said.
"My sense is Adobe would find this to be attractive. I don't want to speak
on their behalf as to when they would participate."
So, there's work to be done yet...and, frankly, we wouldn't blame some of Redmond's
rivals for having a bit of trepidation about working with the software giant.
After all, Microsoft does have a reputation -- well-earned, really -- for being
a bit shifty
in its dealings with other vendors. But this initiative, and most of Microsoft's
new openness mantra, seems genuinely to be about opening Microsoft to the rest
of the industry -- at least more so than in the past.
Well, it's about a couple of other things, too, of course, such as complying
with EU competition regulations and court rulings. Robertson admits as much,
saying that the European Court of First Instance's ruling, which upheld Eurofines
against Microsoft last year, was a catalyst for Redmond's new Interoperability
Principles (a proper noun, apparently, as Microsoft capitalized the phrase in
its press materials).
"These principles absolutely are a step on our part to apply the concepts
in the Court of First Instance decision across all of our high-volume products,
but we have an eye on what the marketplace needs and what our customers have
been asking us to do," Robertson said.
Beyond that, there's Microsoft's ongoing fight to get Office Open XML, the
document format it created, adopted as a standard by the International
Standards Organization. Incidentally, Open XML is already a standard, having
been accepted as such in, of all places, Europe, by the ECMA International
standards body. That means that ECMA actually "owns" the format now
and that future evolution of it is in ECMA's hands, not in Microsoft's. If the
ISO accepts Open XML, it'll own the format.
Robertson said that's important because customers and partners want to work
with standardized formats rather than proprietary ones. (We would add here that
Microsoft would surely like to score some openness reputation points with open
source software actually making a move in some areas of the enterprise. Being
proprietary apparently isn't as cool as it used to be. Score one for the Commu...uh,
we mean "open source community" there.)
Of course, a standard document format -- the Open Document Format, or ODF --
already exists. We wonder how or why more than one standard should exist --
it hardly seems like a standard when that's the case -- although there are multiple
standards in many different areas of the technology industry.
Robertson says that it's all about choice. Different user case scenarios require
different formats, and users should be able to choose which "standard"
(as in, not proprietary) format they want to use and help evolve. That makes
sense, of course, and we're sure that it factors into Redmond's thinking.
But we also have to wonder whether Microsoft has the ulterior motive of wanting
to compete with open source on what's more or less open source's turf, the international
standards bodies. Getting Open XML accepted as a standard and then gradually
letting it -- through the ISO -- squeeze the life out of ODF...What better way
to hit open source right where it would hurt the most? Microsoft, more open
than open source and deemed credible by an independent organization. Give that
some thought. But don't hold your breath for it to happen; the whole ISO thing
has been nasty and could get nastier.
Still, if the net result of the EU bulldogging the Open XML battle is Microsoft
being a little easier to work with, fine. "You're going to see new entrants
to the market that are optimized for interoperability with these high-volume
Microsoft products the same way Microsoft products are," Robertson said
today. "Long-term...You're just going to see a healthier IT industry."
Maybe so. Right now, for whatever reason, it seems as though we're seeing a
more open Microsoft.
What's your take on Microsoft's new openness? Do you care about standard document
formats? Why? Drop a line to email@example.com.
Posted by Lee Pender on 03/06/2008 at 1:21 PM