Why Redmond feels so threatened by ODF

Microsoft sees threat to Office revenues, says Neil McAllister

Could any subject be less interesting than electronic document formats? Even programmers’ eyes start to glaze over when the conversation shifts to how an application stores its data. For software end users, the topic seldom even comes up.

How strange, then, that so much ink has been devoted in the past few months to the ODF (OpenDocument format). It’s just a file format! Various open source office productivity suites have incorporated code that allows them to save and load ODF documents, and that’s great. But nearly every application ever written saves and loads data in some file format or another. Why all the fuss about this one?

ODF first came to prominence last year, when the State of Massachusetts announced that it would adopt the format for public documents and abandon Microsoft’s proprietary Office format. What started as a seemingly simple, albeit significant, decision quickly erupted to near-scandalous proportions. Microsoft, naturally, decried the move. Almost immediately, companies and individuals on both sides of the fence let their opinions be known. Amid the ruckus, Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn, widely recognised as being responsible for the decision to use ODF, resigned.

Since those early days there’s been a steady trickle of news stories about OpenDocument: such-and-such company offers its support for ODF. An industry consortium forms to promote the format; OASIS (the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) has chimed in, too. And another story had ISO adopting it as a formal standard. And so on.

The celebrity tabloids cover Angelina Jolie’s love life as extensively as the IT trade press tracks the progress of ODF. The question is: why? How did something so completely mundane and uninteresting as an office document file format get to be the subject of so much press coverage?

The answer, of course, is Microsoft. As ODF has progressed, Microsoft’s mouthpieces have been there each step of the way, to give the company’s own contrarian spin on the topic. The ODF camp should probably thank the folks in Redmond for helping to make OpenDocument a household word — assuming, that is, that they hold with the popular wisdom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Because, if you’ve been paying attention, one fact becomes clear: Microsoft really has it in for ODF.

Why? It’s just a file format. Actually, Microsoft has never made any public statement disputing its merits. It’s not that ODF is no good, we are told; Microsoft merely prefers having two standards instead of one.

But if that’s true, then one easy way to squash this whole hullabaloo would be to build ODF support into Microsoft Office. Presumably, that would be the easiest way to demonstrate the superiority of Microsoft’s own XML-based file formats over ODF. What fool would go to the trouble of choosing ODF when there’s an obvious better option, selected by default in the Save As box?

It’s not as if it would be technically difficult to do, either. In fact, the OpenDocument Foundation went ahead and wrote a plugin on its own, without any input from Microsoft.

By now it should be clear where I’m going with this. It’s been said before, but it merits repeating: the reason Microsoft won’t write any code to support ODF, and the reason it wants to block OpenDocument, is because OpenDocument is a threat to Microsoft’s bottom line. Period. The revenue stream generated by locking customers into closely guarded proprietary file formats is the proverbial golden goose for Microsoft.

Think about it. Protecting those file formats must be worth countless millions, if not billions, of dollars to Microsoft. That’s why Microsoft is paying attention to ODF, and it’s why you should keep paying attention, too, even if digital file formats aren’t normally your thing. Because, if your business relies on office applications, that’s your money.

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