Diversity vs. Conformity

Willie Shoemaker and Wilt Chamberlain

Do you remember the print ads for American Express that showed jockey Willie Shoemaker and NBA star Wilt Chamberlain standing barefoot on the beach in matching white suits?

I liked that ad so much that I had a copy of it hanging in my office for a long time in the 80s when it first came out. It was a striking image that conveyed how some people break the mold and can't be made to look like others, even if you put everyone in the same simple clothing.

Diversity is a word that gets a lot of lip service these days, but for many people it's truly a way of life. My family includes a variety of races, religions and lifestyles, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The radio in my car is tuned to liberal NPR on the FM side and ultra-conservative KTTH on the AM side, because I love bouncing back and forth to hear both sides of a breaking story.

When I interviewed at Microsoft with a Guatemalan who reported to an Italian-American who reported to an Indian who reported to an Irish-American, I knew I was in the right place.  And the diversity of Microsoft's workforce is truly one of the pleasures of working here.  I love to travel and talk to people from other parts of the world, and here at Microsoft I can get perspectives from many different cultures without leaving the building.

1984 Macintosh commercial

Another ad from the 80s that I'll never forget was Chiat/Day's ad for Apple's Macintosh that ran during the 1984 Super Bowl. What a great ad that was. In an obvious reference to George Orwell's "1984," it showed rows of drab uniformly dressed men sitting before a giant screen watching Big Brother. A woman wearing the only bright colors in the room comes running down the aisle pursued by security guards, and she throws a sledgehammer through the screen, causing it to explode and die.

It was another iconoclastic celebration of diversity, and the message from Apple was clear: IBM wants you to be a conformist, and we want you to be your creative and unique self.

It seems that not much has changed over at IBM. They still want to have centralized "really smart people" in an ivory tower who decide what everyone else should do and how they should do it. These days, though, having lost the stranglehold they once had on the desktop PC business, they're trying to establish mandated conformity in another area: document formats.

Open XML and ODF meet very different customer requirements, but IBM seems to think that all customers should use ODF. They have lobbied for ODF mandates in various state and federal governments (which would make it illegal for government employees to use anything else), they were the sole negative vote against Ecma's standardization of Open XML, and now they're spending a lot of time and energy trying to convince people that Open XML shouldn't be an ISO standard. The message we hear over and over from IBM these days could be paraphrased as "ODF already delivers what everyone needs, so there should not be any other international document-format standards."

Now why would they assume we all have the same requirements and we'll all be happy with the exact same document format? I guess that tells us there's strong conformity within IBM, but out here in the diverse real world people do lots of different things with documents. Some of us want to integrate business data from custom schemas into documents. Some of us want compatibility with documents we've already created. Some of us want the flexibility of content controls, or the power of XML mapping, or the simplicity of altChunk conversion for forward migration of our existing documents.

But at IBM, everyone has identical document requirements. Or do they? :-)

A few quick searches of IBM.com over at Google (yeah, some of us here in Redmond still use Google, see "diversity" above) returns some interesting results. It seems that there are a couple thousand of the old Office binary documents on IBM's web site, including Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and lots of Powerpoint presentations. They also have thousands of text files, thousands of PDF files, and even a few dozen RTF files. Hey, maybe IBM has changed! Maybe they're becoming more diverse after all.

But where are the ODF documents? There are no ODF documents on IBM.com, according to Google.

If you're curious why IBM has suddenly started making the case for lack of choice in file formats, Brian Jones has a post that explains where things stand in the ISO certification process. IBM is trying to influence the ISO certification process to convince various national standards bodies to not allow ISO certification of Open XML. After all, who needs another format? One peek inside the ivory tower will convince you that ODF is all we'll ever need.