Open Format Ecosystems

Part 2 in the series: Ecosystems Based On Open Formats

Another important issue that keeps surfacing in the standard-based format discussion is how the availability of open data formats (Open XML or OpenDocument) enables the growth of an ecosystem of software developers.

It has been suggested by other bloggers that I am in some way ignoring the effects of the Open Document Alliance. That by suggesting that ODF primarily represents the feature set of OpenOffice / StarOffice that I have willfully, and deceitfully ignored all of the others who are implementing ODF for their products. So let me set the record straight. There are a number of development projects that are implementing ODF and it represents that growth of an ecosystem. There is no denying that, and any attempt to do so would be silly. It would be equally ridiculous to not recognize that the big money supporting ODF comes from two vendors who have significant commercial incentive to see ODF represent their products’ features and that it presents and excellent opportunity to create opportunity for the sale of their commercial products. If you are going to hold MS to the standard of driven capitalism, then it would seem reasonable to hold Sun and IBM to the same standard given that constant of Wall Street’s growth expectations.

At the same time, I look at the >300K developers who have been working with Microsoft’s XML formats since their release with the last version of our products as a successful beginnings of an ecosystem as well. And, without a doubt, as Open XML moves to being an open standard there will be significant growth in the ecosystem that surrounds the format for incredibly simple economic reasons.

[Important aside before someone writes the inevitable “rubberstamp” comment to this blog entry – ECMA holds the highest possible accreditation from ISO as having an open process and recognizes the standards it produces as being eligible for rapid ISO consideration.]

The simple economic factor is that solutions, built by non-Microsoft organizations, using their own implementation of Open XML, will have an opportunity to work with a potential customer pool made up of any and all organizations that use Microsoft Office. This is exactly what an open standard is meant to encourage. Multiple, competing implementations resulting in a healthy ecosystem in which customer choice is maximized.

But – this is where some press coverage has gotten mixed up in the past – this does not mean that we are opening the door to multiple implementations of our Office products. Remember, we are talking about the format, not the product. (A useful analogy: a ruler, protractor, and type of pen used are the application – the type, color, weight, size of paper and the representation of figures drawn using the pen, ruler, and protractor are the format. Just because the description of the format is available does not mean that you have either the information or rights to build the pen, protractor, and ruler.)

Even though the Open XML standard is not yet complete there are already projects under way to build a translation layer between Open XML and ODF. As the Open XML standard moves to completion there will be a strong economic incentive for software companies and individual developers to create their own, either partial or complete, implementation of Open XML. Many of our customers produce tens of thousands Office documents on a daily basis. I can imagine a whole range of products that will be looking to build bridges between these documents and ERP, document management, data analysis, and a range of other types of systems.

It seems to me that the discussion of ecosystems is important. Kudos to the hard work of those behind the ODF Alliance as they have brought that community together and fostered its growth. Microsoft is also focused on community growth around Open XML, >300K is a good start, but it needs to move to the millions. The Office customer base is large and diverse in its needs. The amount of opportunity there for our partners and competitors is staggering. The next few years on this front are going to be interesting to say the least.