More responses to comments on Word posts

Some people publicly and privately have suggested that they find it amazing that I am writing this blog. Some were just generally curious - that's cool. But some of them have been suspicious of my motives because I blog. Three of them have asked how it is that I got "permission" to write this blog, or have assumed it must be part of some "marketing ploy".

Allow me to clear a few things up and maybe provide some insight into the culture at Microsoft. First, I happen to have some time right now because I am on infant care leave for a month (a nice benefit that Microsoft gives to new Dads). My son was born eight days ago and once again is asleep in my lap as I write this. The first post I made about Word took me about 4 hours to write (I am NOT a great typist). I spent more time than usual on it because I suspected it would draw more attention than my past posts, and I guess I made the right call on that one.

The idea that I would need "permission" to have a blog is a little humorous to me. Microsoft has always had as one of its strengths that it gives enormous freedom to its employees. We don't have time cards, no one tracks our hours, and in general we are given a lot of responsibility. As long as we deliver results, it doesn't matter if you come in at 2pm and don't wear shoes (both of which I do occasionally, although less often than I used to).

In a way, the environment in any product group is more like a startup than a big company. We have small teams of dedicated people who don't need rules and oversight to make them perform. In fact, if such bureaucracy did start to creep in, the best people would simply leave - it wouldn't be fun anymore. Microsoft is consistently rated as one of the top places to work in America - even though our salaries are only a little above average and the stock has not gone anywhere exciting for several years. The reason is that the environment is great, the benefits are great, and the typical passion, commitment, competence and intelligence of the people around you everyday is exhilarating, frankly. I mean, I LOVE my job. What could be better than working through tough technical problems with smart people everyday, working with customers to understand their needs and then delivering what they asked for (take a look at OneNote's SP1 - that was a tremendously fulfilling release for our team thanks to the users out there who have told us how much it improves their use of the product, if not their lives). Not to mention designing and building products that are used by hundreds of millions of people the world over. If you can make those even a little bit better, the impact you have is enormous.

You've probably noticed more and more MS employees have blogs (I think it is over 400 now). It's a new technology, so it takes awhile to catch on. There's no mystery or central control involved.

Why didn't I blog sooner? There are a few reasons. One is that from the blogs I saw, I thought blogging was a form of vanity publishing - it didn't seem to be an attractive thing for me since that sort of thing doesn't turn me on. Now I see that those blogs are meant as a way to stay in touch with friends. Actually, you can read about my doubts regarding blogging here and here.

Another reason was that I felt I didn't have much to say. It turned out I did once I got going, although as I noted in those earlier posts, without feedback from readers I doubt I would keep going.

A third reason was that I was leery of the net thugs, frankly. They're so tiresome and impossible to reason with, I was concerned they would simply drown out any kind of mature exchange of information. I didn't want to have to deal with a load of invective every day - not worth the energy. In the end, I decided I wasn't going to be cowed by some gang, so here I am.

A couple of commentators have also raised the possibility (well, "certainty" in their minds) that my blog is a "marketing ploy", and can't be bona fide. As if I am the Mouth of Sauron or whatever. In reality, I am just a guy at home with his baby and therefore have a little free time. I think the automatic assumption that I am part of some evil plot simply underlines my earlier point about people making outrageous claims that I happen to know for a fact are utterly untrue. I can understand some people being distrustful due to the bad press the company has received over the last few years, but for me it's like the 50's - being labeled a communist because you wrote a letter to the editor in support of someone. BTW, rather than being supported by our marketing dept, I suspect the PR people and maybe some in marketing are quite nervous about my blog since if I say something asinine, they will have to deal with it most likely.

A couple of people have asked about the permanence of electronic information and access to it in the future if it is in Word format. Microsoft takes this very seriously. That's one of the reasons we make the format documentation available to governments and other institutions, so that there is no concern that they will not have the ability to access the information at a later date. Personally, I find this whole discussion a little bit overwrought though. If it is access to the content of a Word doc that is a concern, just about any word processor available today can import Word documents sufficiently that you can access their content. You don’t need a Microsoft product for that. The issues are usually around getting the formatting exactly right, not access to the content. Also, if there are "bajillions" of Word docs out there in the future, you can bet that there will be tools to read them. Because they are just bits and not hardware, it is not the same as tapes or wax cylinders of the past, where the hardware to read the data is hard to find and maintain, and the amount of items in those old formats is not "bajillions", it is more like "bathousands", so the incentive to maintain the machines exists only for archivists. Archived bits (as opposed to media) can be translated by software far into the future. The argument that Microsoft would somehow disallow access to archived material in Word format is a straw man not worth addressing IMHO. I notice the same arguments are not raised about PDF, which is another closed, patented, proprietary format. Both of these formats have free viewers BTW.

Others have asked about why we don’t use an XML file format as the default for Word. That's an excellent question. Right now of course, you can in fact set Word2003 to use WordML as the default format if you like (Tools/Options/Save, then under "Default format", choose "XML Document"). Changing our default format is a tricky subject, as I wrote in my last post. Last time we changed it, we got fire and brimstone on our heads from customers, and a whole raft of conspiracy theories to boot. So changing the format is not something one can do lightly. We are between a rock and a hard place. If we don’t change the format, most customers are happy, we have a hard time innovating, and we have people complain the format is binary and only Word can effectively use it. If we do change the format, we're free to deliver some great new stuff, but many customers will be upset and on top of that some people will think we did it for nefarious reasons (probably the same people who think we keep it binary for nefarious reasons :-)). So, a no-win situation for us.

One person asked about being able to open or save the Open Office format. That should be possible with a converter or transform. Word has a freely available SDK for its converters, so if someone wanted to make such an import/export converter, they could. Converters are a lot of work though, and we only make them when a critical mass of customers need them. So far we've had essentially no demand for open/save of OpenOffice format (certainly not compared to WordPerfect, where there is still some demand, or Works, or a few others for which we get asked for updates to older converters). Again, this work is done only if it becomes a significant customer issue, and for the OpenOffice format it has a way to go to reach that based on current request rate.

Keep those comments comin'!