How to break Microsoft's lock on applications

Posted by: Steve Hamm on June 26, 2006

Lock in. It’s the enemy of the corporate or government IT manager. Everybody wants to have alternatives so they’re not dependent on a single tech supplier for a crucial set of applications. Yet, in the case of Microsoft Office, it’s very difficult for customers to break away from their dependency on Microsoft. Sure, there are alternatives that do most of the important things that Office programs do. But so-called network effects (the interoperability of Office software programs being used by 400 million people) create an environment where, in many cases, it’s just easier to pay up and stick with Office than to switch. There’s a little crack in Microsoft’s lock, however. It’s called the Open Document Format. And that crack could get bigger in the coming months.

OpenDoc is a technology specification based on the XML interoperability standard. It was created by the OASIS industry consortium. A major step forward for OpenDoc came in May when it was approved as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). That means governments worldwide have the ammunition they need to make the inclusion of OpenDoc a requirement in software applications they buy. Belgium adopted OpenDoc recently, topping off a list of countries, states, and cities that have embraced the standard or are considering it.

What's the big deal about OpenDoc? The technology specification is not owned by any company, it's open for inspection, and it's not covered by any patents. Documents created using it can be opened and edited in any application that supports it. So it has the potential to become the Lingua Franca of office productivity applications. Governments feel that, thanks to OpenDoc, they--not a software company--will have the key to access their archived documents into perpetuity.

Still, in spite of the obvious advantages, OpenDoc has a long way to go before it can fulfill its potential. That's because mighty Microsoft is working hard to defeat it and promote its own XML-based file format--called Microsoft Open Office XML. This will be the default file format in Office 2007, due out late this year. Microsoft has submitted it for approval by the ECMA standards group and says it eventually hopes its format will be sanctioned by ISO as well. To make its format more palatable to IT managers Microsoft has opened the specification for inspection, made it royalty free, and signed a covenant promising not to sue anybody over intellectual property rights. "We searched for the broadest way to assure developers they can use the technology without any issues," says Alan Yates, general manager for strategy for Microsoft Office.

Still, the format is owned and controlled by Microsoft. That's why Massachusetts' executive branch has adopted OpenDoc and stuck with it in spite of furious lobbying by Microsoft. "We want a standard that's open and managed by a standards body, and not subject to licensing or royalty rights, and that's backed by multiple vendors," says Louis Gutierrez, the state's chief information officer. "We don't want vendor-proprietary features or other impediments to competition."

Massachusetts' journey has been long and so hard-fought that it resulted in the previous CIO resigning. I tracked down the former CIO, Peter Quinn, to find out what he's up to these days and what he's thinking. He's now running the IT organization at Bisys, an Ohio mutual fund services company. He was in a good mood. Massachusetts has stuck with OpenDoc through all the turmoil. The ISO's move was an important step. "It's important to me that governments, with their difficult fiscal situations, are careful about how they spend their money, and they don't have trouble accessing their documents 100 years from now," he says.

Quinn's involvement started back in 2003 when he and Eric Kriss, the state's Secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, sat down and decided to adopt a set of technology standards for the executive branch. "We said that open standards would be the rule, and open source software would be treated as a best value when people looked at technology acquisition options." In Sept. 2005, after months of discussions with a host of technology suppliers, including Microsoft, the state administration adopted OpenDoc as its future file format, effective Jan. 1, 2007.

But the fight didn't end there. Microsoft tried to get the administration to reconsider--lobbying both administration officials and legislators. Last November, the Boston Globe published a story questioning the ethics of a series of trips Quinn had taken to open source conferences around the world over the previous couple of years. A government investigation was launched into the matter, and, two months later, even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing, Quinn abruptly resigned. "I knew there was nothing there, but there was still a lot of pain. I didn't want the technology to become a political football," he says. (There has been much blogging about the Globe story, including this item.)

Since then, Quinn has spent quite of bit of time on the road evangelizing OpenDoc. He has told his story in Europe, Australia, and a handful of states. "It's no so much getting my licks in. I'm just telling my story. I'm beautifully candid on my opinions," he says. It could be that Quinn will be more harmful to Microsoft out of government than inside.

Does he believe Microsoft took the bogus travel rules violation story to the Globe? "It has been almost universally attributed to Microsoft, but I don't know. Somebody put it together," he says.
Microsoft denies involvement. "It's not true," says Microsoft's Yates. "I was working with Peter. We weren't adversarial--just on opposite sides of the issues. There were advocates on the other side of the issue that were upset with a number of things Peter had done--including the open source preference policy."

Get ready for a long battle over the future of documents. Microsoft has a clear advantage because of its Office and Windows monopolies. It has lined up some allies, including Apple Computer. And even some of its desktop software rivals believe Microsoft's XML standard, rather than OpenDoc, could win out in the end. Corel Corp., whose WordPerfect Suite is a direct competitor to Microsoft Office, was one of the original backers of OpenDoc, but it's spending more time evaluating Open Office XML--simply because of Microsoft's power in the market. "That's what customers are showing interest in right now," says Corel CEO David Dobson.

Standards battles are usually about as interesting as watching paint dry. For many, this one is no exception. But, in this case, the outcome is vitally important to technology users, as well as to Microsoft's efforts to maintain its Office monopoly. So the file format debate is worth tracking. And, for people with influence, it's worth influencing. For anybody who's interested in breaking Microsoft's lock on their purchases of productivity applications, this could be the most effective way to do it.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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