If freedom of choice doesn't do it for you how about lower taxes ?

A couple of days ago I wrote about our online Petition to the BSI concerning Open XML, it's always nice to be noticed by Mary Jo Foley  but she asks

Am I the only one, in reading Microsoft's rationale for ISO standardization, who finds it ironic that Microsoft is citing "customer choice" and "interoperability" as the motivators for its moves?

Wouldn't it be more genuine (to use another Microsoft buzzword) to admit that Microsoft is seeking standardization for Open XML because there is a growing number of customers — especially government customers — whose purchasing contracts require approved-standards-based technologies?

Mary Jo also wondered how long we Microsoft bloggers can be transparent. Which what I'm trying to be here.  Microsoft have done well out of customer choice. People chose Word for Windows over Word Perfect, Excel over Lotus 1-2-3, NT and Windows Server 200x over Novell Netware, Windows over OS/2 warp. Companies like RealNetworks complained - with some success - that when customers had a Microsoft product put in front of them, they chose to use it, rather than get something like RealPlayer.  When our products weren't good enough customers chose something else (Remember Multiplan ?) and we went back and improved the product (most of the time). In a successful company the best incentive to improve your product is having your peers know yours is the one taking a kicking.  

What are the people who want to compete in that area doing ? Are they bringing forth evidence that users are more productive with their products ? No. Evidence that software which is sometimes 'free' costs less over it's life ? No. That they have more and better features ? No. That users like their software better ? No...  

When the law is against you argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law
Legal proverb

The facts favour us. So what would you expect a competitor like IBM to do ? Argue the law ... I'm a veteran of these arguments. In the early 1990s I was involved in selling into UK local govenrment against ICL - who argued, often successfully, that their Networks were the ONLY ones you could buy which implemented Open Systems Interconnection standards. You might think that a system from only one vendor might not be open... But then you might think the kind of market share Office has makes it a some kind of standard. Governments don't do de-facto standards. You or I might think that SMTP is a standard, but it's not defined by a true standards body; X400 on the other hand was defined by the CCITT (now called the ITU. Their wikipedia page descibes the CCITT as "a rather slow and deliberate organization"). Where was X.400 mostly adopted - and where are it's last pockets still found ? Government -the only place where deadlines are infinitely flexible, (in 1949,the usage scenarios for a UK governement IT system were published, with an expectation it would be complete in 35 years. It is only nearing completion today) and budget for consultants knows no limits either - useful if you're in the consulting business like, say, IBM. So can IBM and its allies somehow use standards to do what they couldn't do with development - get Governments to buy their software.   Talking to Mary Jo our GM for Interoperability, Tom Robertson put it like this  "The discussions around Open XML and ODF are a proxy for product competition in the marketplace... ...In general, we are not hearing about this issue from our enterprise or consumer customers – it is localized to governments today."

So here's the cunning plan.

  1. Get a basic office automation suite.
  2. Get its file format approved on a fast track by a standards body
  3. Set to work convincing governments that they must follow standards.  Productivity and cost don't matter (tax payers don't notice)
  4. Make sure that your file format is the only one approved.

This last step is important. If you have a good product, or a good format why does it matter if the competitor is approved too ?  But if you have an inferior product, it would take take away your main selling point. IBM tried to stop Office Open XML becoming an ECMA standard. When that failed their argument became that only ISO standards are proper standards, and ECMA standards aren't (in which case why do they participate in ECMA ?)

A huge proportion of tax payers think the software which makes us productive is Office. Businesses find that office gives them good return on investment. We are free to choose office; and given the freedom to do so most government will do the same. As a Microsoft shareholder and employee I'd be only be very slightly troubled if people chose a Microsoft product without even considering the alternatives. But as a tax payer, I think government has a duty to spend my money in the most effective way and that means checking all the options. When they've done that they tend to choose the industry leading software for the same reasons that everyone else does.  

Oh, one last thing Mary Jo finds our citing of interoperability as a motivator ironic (and we Brits say the Americans don't understand irony). The old formats for Word, Excel and Powerpoint have their roots in the 1980s. Customers, partners and (yes) competitors wanted to be able to manipulate the files outside the applications. But the file formats were badly adapted for that, they had little in common with each other we didn't publish them, and there was always the spectre that we'd claim some infringement of intellectual property rights. What we have done for office 2007 is provide a format is common to all the applications, that can be manipulated, and via the open specification promise which I've talked about before  there's no threat of Intellectual Property lawsuits. We don't need a third party to be stewards of the standard, but which attitude is preferable "we're the biggest player, so what do is a de-facto standard, we've put what you need on our website." or "We've fully documented it and handed it over to a third party".


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