It is almost ten years to the day that Bill Gates made his "Pearl Harbor"
speech, which placed the Internet at the heart of everything Microsoft did.
may not be quite so epoch making, but it nonetheless represents a
major change of direction for Microsoft, and has interesting implications
for free software.
The parallels between Microsoft's two strategy shifts are striking.
Both were triggered in part by spectacular IPOs: Netscape's in 1995,
Google's in 2004. Both sought to head off the same threat of
OS-independent computing. Back in 1995, Gates was worried that
Netscape's software might create a "Webtop" platform, where Java
applets would be downloaded over the Internet into the browser to
provide word processors, spreadsheets and the rest. In 2005, another
Net-based approach software services of the kind popularized by
Google not only allows the browser to provide those same functions,
but comes with a flourishing ad-based revenue model to sustain it.
Gates's response is also similar in both cases: to embrace the basic idea so as to
reduce the appeal of rival offerings, and then, ultimately, to use it
to tie users more closely to his products. The success of that
technique can be seen in the dominance of Internet Explorer, which not
only replaced Netscape
Navigator as the most popular browser, but managed to subvert Web
standards to such an extent that
Navigator was ultimately perceived as inferior since it was unable to
work with the huge number of IE-specific sites.
One lesson to be learned from this history is that Microsoft should never be
underestimated, even perhaps especially - when it seems to be
wrong-footed and forced to adopt technologies that apparently threaten
its empire. Fear has always given the company focus. The new Windows
Live system may look innocuous and even
conciliatory it can not only be accessed from GNU/Linux machines,
but also explicitly
Firefox - but the back-end hooks into Microsoft's products
are likely to be deep.
The second and probably more important lesson to be drawn is that the much
Google Office service if and when it does come is not going to be
the Microsoft Office killer that many seem to imagine. Whatever Google or
anyone else might do in this sphere, Microsoft can simply match it, at
least in terms of functionality.
But one thing that Microsoft is unlikely to offer is support for truly open
file formats, its recent announcement
of the "open standardization" of Office formats notwithstanding. The
technical and legal details of this will need to be examined closely to see
whether it is yet another case of Microsoft apparently promising much, but
in reality delivering considerably less. After all, if it did support a
completely open file format, the barrier to switching to other office
suites would disappear.
Until the approval
of the new OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard by OASIS, there were many
alternatives to Microsoft's office file formats, but none around which
other manufacturers or major users could rally. With ODF, there is now not
only an official standard, but a real
choice of software that supports (or will support) it.
The key role that ODF will play in tomorrow's battles between open and
proprietary approaches is already evident in the furore surrounding the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts's decision
to adopt ODF as an official file format. The rather forced logic of Microsoft's
comments on this move is an indication of the company's
difficulties in neutralizing this threat. Moreover, Massachusetts may turn
out to be no simple loss of business, but a tipping point that could lead
to large-scale defections from Microsoft's proprietary formats to open
standards. Anyone who doubts that such a shift is possible should bear in
mind that WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 once dominated their respective
sectors as totally as the programs that displaced them - Microsoft Word and
Excel - do now.
An even more serious blow to Microsoft's grip on the office market
could come from Europe. The European Union (EU) is keen to promote
what it calls open document
exchange formats. One of its
technical subcommittees approved a series
of recommendations that effectively
back ODF provided it becomes a recognized standard. Bizarrely,
OASIS does not count as a standards body in this context, and so ODF has
been submitted to
the better-known International Organization for Standardization (ISO). ODF
could emerge as
an ISO standard sometime next year. At that point, the EU may well
throw its considerable weight behind ODF by specifying it as the
preferred format for public sector communications in Europe.
Microsoft is acutely aware of this threat: it is no coincidence that
it announced the standardization of its Office formats in Paris, not
Private sector support is gathering momentum, too. The original donor of
the OpenOffice.org code, Sun, has naturally adopted ODF in its StarOffice
8.0, and also offers
a grid-based service for bulk conversion of Microsoft Office documents
into ODF files. Another major player in this area is IBM, which uses
OpenOffice.org formats for its groupware product Workplace,
likely to be the successor to Lotus Notes.
The strength of both of these companies' commitment is shown by the fact
that, despite their other differences, Sun and IBM jointly
hosted an ODF summit at the beginning of November; those attending
included Google, Nokia, Novell, Oracle and Red Hat. One of the items
discussed was the creation of a formal ODF Foundation to promote the
standard. An Open Document
Fellowship bringing together individuals interested in the development
of ODF (including the present writer) already exists.
ODF is fast emerging as one of the most important recent developments
in the software world had it not existed, Microsoft would surely
never have embarked on its "open standardization" process. In time,
its appearance in May this year might even turn out to be as pivotal
as Bill Gates' Pearl Harbor Day speech. At the very least, it
represents a rich new vein that can be mined by open source
programmers keen to make their mark. As a young standard, there are
still gaps in its software support. Items on the wish list include:
- A plug-in that would allow Microsoft Office users to read and write
ODF files (a server-based
approach is already under development).
- Improved accessibility for disabled users (one of the issues that is
threatening to derail the Massachusetts decision).
- A simple ODF reader,
along the lines of Adobe's Acrobat, that would enable users to read
ODF documents without installing an entire office suite.
- A lightweight
ODF editor even smaller than Abiword, say that would allow
simple changes to ODF text files.
- A Wiki-like collaborative editing system based around ODF Work on OpenFormula, which
complements and extends ODF
In the browser wars of the late 1990s, Bill Gates was able to wrest
control of the web from Netscape because of the latter's short-sighted
attempts to beat Microsoft at its own game notably by adding
proprietary twists to HTML. Today, as Microsoft re-invents
itself in the image of Web
2.0, the situation is rather different. The importance and power of
open standards is more evident, and the free software community is no
longer a small and apparently marginal group but, instead, the most important
counterpoise to Microsoft, well placed to resist any moves to
"de-commoditize" key technologies like Ajax.
And this time, there is a chance to go on the offensive. The open
source world has long had the desire to end Microsoft's dominance on
the desktop; with ODF not GNU/Linux, as many have believed it may
finally have the means.
(Glyn Moody is author of Rebel Code: Linux and the open source
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