Format wars – Redmond vs. Big Blue

Antoine Lablond doesn’t actually do much programming at Microsoft anymore, but he can still remember the thrill of it.

“Getting to write a line of code and have half a billion people actually run it — if you think of the impact that software in general has had in the way people work, it’s an amazing thing to be involved in,” the company’s vice-president of Office productivity applications says. “Over the years the formats have been the centre of a lot of what we do.”

Now, however, those formats have become the centre of major industry infighting and politics. The controversy began last year when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Beligan government decided to mandate the use of Open Document Format (ODF), an ISO standard supported by IBM and Sun Microsystems. Those decisions suggested that large organizations might start moving away from MS Office products, which are now being developed under a standard which Microsoft calls Office Open XML. Users like the idea of software based on an internationally-approved standard, and Microsoft is taking Open Office XML through the ISO approval process.

Lablond, a Quebec City native who started with Microsoft in 1989, became the firm’s official spokesperson for this debate exactly one year ago, when the former head of Office products left and his job was split into two. Lablond manages the products most people use every day — MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint — and the ones to which the ODF offers an alternative to rival ISVs.

“I enjoy (the new role) it in the sense that anything that gives us an opportunity to represent the views of customers,” Lablond says. “Do I enjoy the amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt around this? No. I just think it’s not our industry at its best.”

Microsoft has already managed to get Open Office XML approved by Ecma International, despite a “no” vote from IBM. More recently, Microsoft has launched projects to create interoperability between the two document formats, and supported the inclusion of ODF on a list of other business standards. Lablond, meanwhile, is acting as a kinder, gentler face in Microsoft’s campaign, insisting that there is room for both formats and that there is no competition between them.

“Open XML is really about documenting a format that is rich enough to represent all the existing Office documents,” he says. “ODF is bit more of a — I guess you could call it a ‘start from zero’ approach…. If you were going to come out with a standard for a railroad, a new standard where the tracks are a foot apart, you could argue it costs less, or covers more land. Or you could come up with a railroad that acknowledges there’s millions of tracks laid out there already.”

Doug Heintzman, director of Lotus strategy for IBM Software Group, says there’s “an enormous fallacy” in Lablond’s talk of choice. He said Microsoft is only focused on making a specification that conforms with its own products.

“That is not the way you work on standards,” he says. “You start with some sort of donation that someone’s worked on, then you tap into the world’s expertise to adjust it and make it pragmatic. You end up with the output of a consultative process with a whole bunch of experts. That’s not the way this thing was built.”

Heintzman says the Open XML standards document is more than 6,000 pages long (compared with less than 800 pages for the ODF standard) and references a lot of things only Microsoft would understand. That will make it much more difficult to create products around it, he added, whereas ODF is the underpinning of IBM Workplace, Sun’s StarOffice and

“No customer I have ever met has said they want more choice of standards,” says Simon Phipps, Sun’s chief open source officer. “Unfortunately, they find themselves in a world where, because there are sometimes multiple standards for a single application area, they’re forced to choose between them.”

Some customers are already dealing with those choices. Microsoft once touted Edmonton-based Capital Engineering as a customer that switched from to MS Office because the ODF-based product did not meet its needs. However Matt Ho, who works in the company’s IT department, said Capital Engineering still has a few workstations, and hasn’t ruled out adopting the new version.

“I’ll definitely look into and see how much easier it is to use,” said Ho. “If so, I would just make a pitch to the management and let them know that this is a viable product and could save money.”

Lablond says the standards battle may be high profile now, but customers will focus on features and functions once the dust is settled. “I think there’s a huge benefit to large enterprises to adopt and use formats that are fully documented. I think the details of whether it’s ISO, Ecma or several others probably aren’t that relevant,” he says.

Related Download
Virtualization: For Victory Over IT Complexity Sponsor: HPE
Virtualization: For Victory Over IT Complexity
Download this white paper to learn how to effectively deploy virtualization and create your own high-performance infrastructures
Register Now