Practical Technology

for practical people.

Microsoft, Newspeak and Open XML


One of the most chilling concepts of George Orwells novel “1984” is “Newspeak.” In Newspeak, the language is constantly being cropped of words that might lead to “thoughtcrimes.” If you control the language, the logic goes, you control what people think.

Microsoft is doing exactly this with its “Open XML.” Its meant to remind you of open source—a term which is now fighting to maintain its integrity—and, in particular, of open standards.

Open standards, most of us in the IT business agree, are good things. If we didnt have open standards, wed still be stuck with half-a-dozen incompatible versions of the C programming language, we wouldnt have universal 802.11g Wi-Fi, and so on. Of course, reaching though standards can be a long, painful experience, as anyone who has followed the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard wars knows.

Microsoft, however, isnt really trying to win the open-standard wars in document formats between its own Open XML and the truly open ODF (Open Document Format). Instead, its appearing to be willing to compromise and to make it easy to translate from the two formats.

In fact, its even working with rivals like Novell and Xandros to make it easier to translate from the two formats.

Sounds good, doesnt it?

Microsoft is winning, as we can see from Massachusetts decision to support Microsofts Office Open XML format in addition to ODF. Massachusetts, in case youve forgotten, is where the open document format war started. Massachusetts CIO at the time, Peter Quinn, said “Government is creating history at a rapidly increasing rate, and all documents we save must be accessible to everybody, without having to use closed software to open them now and in the future.”

Great idea, but from the reaction from some Microsoft lobbyists you would have thought hed proposed throwing babies to packs of starving dogs.

When it became clear that Microsoft couldnt just bulldoze open document standards away, the company decided that it should open up Office 2007s document formats. At the time, Id said Microsoft would find a way to poison its open standards. I was right.

Standards expert and attorney Andy Updegrove explains the current open standard trap well in his Standards Blog. Where does this leave proponents of ODF now? Clearly, if Ecma 376 (the official standard that hides Open XML) achieves equal status with ODF in Massachusetts, it will be a cause of great disappointment.

One can assume that privately, if not publicly, ODF opponents will have a field day one-on-one with other government purchasers, and will declare the open format battle over. Indeed, earlier in 2007 Microsoft did just that, calling a unilateral truce and announcing that there had been “two winners”

Updegrove continued, “After all, two years ago Microsofts formats were closed, and now they have been adopted by Ecma, and perhaps may soon be adopted by ISO/IEC as well. Bringing Microsoft to this point is, from that perspective, a victory indeed.

“But this would likely be a Pyrrhic victory at best. Office still commands a huge lead in the marketplace, and its ability to outspend the new entrants (many open source) into the office productivity suite marketplace will be enormous. If no one is buying ODF-compliant products, no one will develop them. And if no one is developing them, no one will be competing with Microsoft.

“And if no one is competing with Microsoft, then no one will care whether Microsoft contributes new features to Ecma or maintains them as proprietary extensions of Ecma 376, or whether it fully implements Ecma 376, or whether, in fact, it continues to support Ecma 376 at all. And then we will be right back where we started—dependent upon a single vendor, and with the accessibility of its all current documents, and indeed the history of our civilization, at risk.”

Why is Updegrove so full of doom and gloom? Isnt Open XML a standard? Arent there Open XML translators?

Hes down because hes tasted the poison in Microsofts so called open standard. Updegrove took a long, hard look at another Microsoft open-standard proposal before Ecma, TC46 – XPS (XML Paper Specification). This one, in case you dont know, is Microsofts latest attempt to stop Adobes PDF in its tracks.

“Why does this latest submission matter?” Updegrove asks. It matters because “it indicates a desire by Microsoft to institutionalize and expand a perpetual, standardized environment that would surround a single vendors products.”

The poison pill in both this and in Open XML is that Microsoft, not a standards organization, not a consortium of companies, gets to decide what goes into Open XML and what doesnt.

Sure, Open XML, all 4,000 or so pages of it, is sort of open now, but once ODF is off the table as a viable format, is it going to stay that way? Especially when it would be so easy to add just a bit of incompatibility here and there within such a monstrously sized standard?

Congratulations, Microsoft, it looks to me like youve played the Newspeak game very well and enough people are buying your “Open XML” is truly an open standard that we may be stuck with it. And that ensures that everyone will need to keep buying your Office programs instead of any of the others.

Life will be good for Microsoft stock holders. Lousy for every one else, but, come on, Microsoft doesnt believe in competition, it believes in winning by crushing its enemies, and making nice with customers only until Microsofts products are left as their only choice.

Best of all, thanks to your Newspeak, some fools already believe that Microsoft makes not only the best, but the most open programs. Excuse me. I feel a bit ill now.

A version of this story was first published in eWEEK.

Leave a Reply