foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

OOXML and RTF: Two anti-competitive strategies, two bad ideas

, posted: 4-Jan-2008 09:53

There was a very good article posted by Rob Weir a couple of days ago, which today is discussed on Slashdot as well. It makes an interesting comparison between OOXML (Microsoft's new proposed office document standard) and the much older RTF standard. It argues that Microsoft will use OOXML to further lock in their customers, and to continually make it difficult for any competitor to produce OOXML compatibility, while officially being able to claim 'standard compliance', just like they have done in the past with RTF. And since Microsoft has shown its strategy with RTF in the past, why - the article asks - should we assume anything else from Microsoft today?

As it turns out, Microsoft had proposed the RTF 'standard' as a means for document exchange between office suites. However, because they were the only one controlling and defining this so-called standard, they forced any competitor to constantly play catch-up, delay their product offerings, and remain in effect permanently at a disadvantage. This lead to a 2004 anti-trust complaint of Novell against Microsoft. Novell starts by summarising the benefits of an open standard for the exchange of documents:
...a truly standard file format that was open to all ISVs would have enhanced competition in the market for word processing applications, because such a standard allows the exchange of text files between different word processing applications used by different customers. A user wishing to exchange a text file with a second user running a different word processing application could simply convert his file to the standard format, and the second user could convert the file from the standard format into his own word processor's format.
Then it gets to the core of the issue:
...Microsoft knew that if it controlled the convertibility of documents through its control of the RTF standard, then Microsoft would be able to exclude competing word processing applications from the market and force customers to adopt Microsoft Word, as it soon did.
For some reason, the world left Microsoft in control of the RTF 'standard'. Consequently, Microsoft took full advantage of those powers that had been vested in them:
The specifications for RTF were readily available to Microsoft's applications developers... Microsoft withheld the RTF specifications from Novell, however, forcing Novell to engage in a perpetual, costly effort to comply with a critical "industry standard" that was, in reality, nothing more than the preference of its chief competitor, Word. Indeed, whenever Word changed its own file format, Microsoft unilaterally and identically changed the RTF standard for Windows, forcing Novell and other ISVs constantly to redevelop their applications.
What does this have to do with OOXML, you may ask? After all, the specifications for it are published, right? Well, the current version is. However, Microsoft has clearly stated that they will balance competitive innovation with the real interoperability needs of customers and partners (taken from a Microsoft press release). So, Microsoft sees it as perfectly legitimate to NOT adhere to the standard whenever they please. They determine what that 'balance' is. They determine what the 'real interoperability needs' are. As the article states:
Whenever Word changes, OOXML will change. And if you are a user or competitor of Word, you will be the last one to hear about these changes. ISO does not own OOXML. Ecma does not own OOXML. OOXML, in practice, is controlled and determined solely by the Office product teams at Microsoft. No one else matters
And further:
Consider that Microsoft has recently proposed over 1,700 changes to the OOXML specification, including fixes that presumably will be made into a future Office 2007 fixpack. Microsoft knows what these fixes will be. The Office developer teams know what these fixes will be. But if you are a competitor of Microsoft's in this space, do you know what these changes are? No. Microsoft has decided to keep them a secret, claiming that the ISO process allows them to withhold interoperability information from competitors in what they maintain is an "open standard".
Great! So here we are again. You would think we all have learned from RTF. But apparently, some people have not. The strategy pursued by Microsoft is crystal clear. Let's close with a few more words from Novell, by quoting from their complaint about RTF:
In this manner, Microsoft gave Word a permanent, insurmountable lead in time-to-market and made document conversions difficult for users otherwise interested in running non-Microsoft applications. Many WordPerfect users were thus forced to switch to Microsoft Word, which predictably monopolized the word processing market....
There you have it. Can a leopard change its spots? Why should we believe for a second that Microsoft's intent is not exactly the same with OOXML as it was with RTF?


Other related posts:
New Zealand's national broadcaster (TVNZ) discriminating against non-Windows users?
Microsoft Office to support ODF
OOXML gets ISO blessing - bad for all of us

Comment by William, on 14-Jan-2008 16:02

Hey foo!

Have you seen this.... backward compatibility be damned!

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