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Those who forget Santayana…

It must have passed beneath my radar it when it first was filed in 2004, but it caught my eye recently when Andy Updegrove mentioned it in Chapter 3 of his book-in-progress, The War of the Words. I’m talking about Novell’s November 2004 antitrust complaint against Microsoft, filed shortly after settling an different, OS-related, complaint with Microsoft for $536 million. You can view the second complaint, which I’ll call the “WordPerfect” complaint, here [PDF] on GrokLaw.

What is interesting to me, and why this “old news” is worth talking about, is the analysis Novell made in their complaint of Microsoft’s treatment of document format standards. The concerns of 2004 (or 1995 even) are very similar to the concerns of 2007. Let’s go through Novell’s argument and see where it leads us.

91. As Microsoft knew, a truly standard file format that was open to all ISVs would have enhanced competition in the market for word processing applications, because such a standard allows the exchange of text files between different word processing applications used by different customers. A user wishing to exchange a text file with a second user running a different word processing application could simply convert his file to the standard format, and the second user could convert the file from the standard format into his own word processor’s format. This, a law firm, for instance, could continue to use WordPerfect (which was the favorite word processor of the legal profession), so long as it could convert and edit client documents created in Microsoft Word, if that is what clients happened to use…

This is a good statement of the benefits of an open document standard. Note that Novell is not arguing that the benefit of a standard is to get information in or out of a single vendor’s product, like Microsoft Office. The benefit is that a standard provides for interchange between any pair of word processors.

…Microsoft knew that if it controlled the convertibility of documents through its control of the RTF standard, then Microsoft would be able to exclude competing word processing applications from the market and force customers to adopt Microsoft Word, as it soon did.

Note also that Novell is not complaining here about Microsoft’s control of the binary DOC format (and its many variations). Instead, what Novell complains about is Microsoft’s control over the document exchange format RTF, or Rich Text Format, used in those days to exchange data between word processors. He who controls RTF, controls document exchange, controls vendor lock-in and has the sole means of improving the fidelity of document exchanges.

In fact, Microsoft claimed that RTF addressed this very concern — document exchange in a cross-platform, cross-application fashion, as stated in the introduction to version 1.0 of their self-styled “standard”:

The RTF standard provides a format for text and graphics interchange that can be used with different output devices, operating environments, and operating systems. RTF uses the ANSI, PC-8, Macintosh, or IBM PC character set to control the representation and formatting of a document, both on the screen and in print. With the RTF standard, you can transfer documents created under different operating systems and with different software applications among those operating systems and applications

It should have been obvious at the time that vesting exclusive control of an interoperability interface in a single company was a bad idea. But I guess the world didn’t realize what dealing with Microsoft meant. But we know better now. So why are we making the same mistakes in 2007?

Those who control the exchange format, can control interoperability and turn it on or off like a water faucet to meet their business objectives. I don’t know how many people noticed the language in Microsoft’s press release announcing their sponsored interoperability track at XML 2007 a few weeks ago:

In its approach, Microsoft strives to bring technologies to market in a way that balances competitive innovation with the real interoperability needs of customers and partners.

Let that sink in for a minute. Microsoft is saying that they need to balance interoperability and profit. (Their profit, not yours) They can’t maximize for both simultaneously. They need to trade one off for the other.

Continuing with Novell’s 2004 complaint:

92. The specifications for RTF were readily available to Microsoft’s applications developers, because RTF was the format they themselves developed for Microsoft’s office productivity applications. Microsoft withheld the RTF specifications from Novell, however, forcing Novell to engage in a perpetual, costly effort to comply with a critical “industry standard” that was, in reality, nothing more than the preference of its chief competitor, Word. Indeed, whenever Word changed its own file format, Microsoft unilaterally and identically changed the RTF standard for Windows, forcing Novell and other ISVs constantly to redevelop their applications. In this manner, Microsoft gave Word a permanent, insurmountable lead in time-to-market and made document conversions difficult for users otherwise interested in running non-Microsoft applications. Many WordPerfect users were thus forced to switch to Microsoft Word, which predictably monopolized the word processing market….

So, the RTF standard was just a dump of Word’s features, done when and how Microsoft felt like doing it. As one wag quipped, “RTF is defined as whatever Word saves when you ask it to save as RTF.”

This should sound familiar. OOXML is nothing more than the preferences of Microsoft Office. Whenever Word changes, OOXML will change. And if you are a user or competitor of Word, you will be the last one to hear about these changes. ISO does not own OOXML. Ecma does not own OOXML. OOXML, in practice, is controlled and determined solely by the Office product teams at Microsoft. No one else matters.

Consider that Microsoft has recently proposed over 1,700 changes to the OOXML specification, including fixes that presumably will be made into a future Office 2007 fixpack. Microsoft knows what these fixes will be. The Office developer teams know what these fixes will be. But if you are a competitor of Microsoft’s in this space, do you know what these changes are? No. Microsoft has decided to keep them a secret, claiming that the ISO process allows them to withhold interoperability information from competitors in what they maintain is an “open standard”.

Further, the coding of Office 14 a.k.a. Office 2009 is well underway. Beta releases are expected in early 2008. But are file format changes needed to accommodate the new features being discussed in Ecma? No. Are they being discussed in ISO? No. Are they being discussed anywhere publicly? No.

Is this how an open standard is developed?

My prediction is that the first time anyone hears about what is in the next version of OOXML will be when Office 14 Beta 1 is announced. Other vendors will not hear a word about the format changes until after the Beta 1 is already released. Not even Ecma will hear about the changes until after then.

DIS 29500 is already obsolete, has already been embraced and extended. You just don’t know about it yet. You weren’t meant to know. In fact, pretend you don’t know. Give Microsoft a big head start. They need it.

Further from the Novell complaint:

93. …As in the case of of RTF, Microsoft forced Novell to delay its time-to-market while redeveloping its applications to an inferior standard. Because these standards were lifted directly from Microsoft’s own applications, those applications were always “compatible” with the standards.

And that is the key, isn’t it? By owning the “standard” and developing it in secret, without participation from other vendors, in an Ecma rubber-stamp process, Microsoft rigs the system so they can author an ISO standard with which they are effortlessly compatible, while at the same time ensuring that their products maintain an insurmountable head start in implementing these same standards. There is no balance of interests in OOXML. It is entirely dictated by Microsoft, and voted on, in many cases, by their handpicked committees in Ecma and ISO.

So much for Novell’s complaint from 2004. I’m told that this is still case is suspended as of November, 2007, as the two parties pursue mediation. A status report on that mediation is due to Judge Motz by January 11th, 2008. Maybe we’re hear more then.

Looking at this long history of standards abuse by Microsoft, in the file format arena and elsewhere, I’m drawn to take a broader view of this controversy. It is not really a battle between ODF and OOXML. It isn’t even really a battle between OOXML and ISO. It is, in the end, a battle between having document standards and not having them. Microsoft is trying to dumb down the concept of standards and interoperability to a point where these concepts are meaningless and ineffective. This is not because they want to support standards more easily in their products. No, it is because they do not want standards at all.

Remember, standards bring interoperability, the ability to try out new tools and techniques, the ability to migrate, the ability to chose among alternatives, the ability even to run non-Microsoft products. If standards are meaningless and ineffective, then the incumbent’ vendor lock-in will win every time. At that point, isn’t it convenient for them to have a monopoly in operating systems and productivity applications? This, in my opinion, is the essence of Novell’s 2004 complaint, Opera’s present complaint, and the ongoing file format debate. Microsoft’s monopoly power and the resulting network effects have lead to a relationship with standards where they win by winning, by drawing, or even by cheating so much that they discredit the system.

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Sean 2007/12/20, 4:33 pm

    A while back Brian Jones, a Microsoft Office project manager, claimed good interoperability pedigree for Office applications since they can read and write “standards such as RTF and CSV”. I took him to task over that one because neither of these is a standard; they are standins for standards. CSV is extremely unstable across versions and languages of Excel, and as far as I can tell is undocumented except to Microsoft developers. RTF is simply a representation of every version of Word. I took the trouble a while ago to compile this list, since such a list does not exist online from Microsoft:

    * March 1987: An article by Nancy Andrews of Microsoft.
    * 1.0 1987: Word 3.0 for Macintosh
    * 1.0 June 1992: Word for Windows v2
    * 1.1 Unknown, unavailable
    * 1.2 Unknown, unavailable
    * 1.3 January 1994: Word v6
    * 1.4 September 1995: Word v7 (Word 95)
    * 1.5 April 1997: Word v8 (Word 97)
    * 1.6 May 1999: Word v9 (Word 2000)
    * 1.7 August 2001: Word v10 (Word 2002)
    * 1.8 April 2004: Word v11 (Word 2003)
    * 1.9 January 2007: Word v12 (Word 2007)

    The worst part about this “standard” is the license: it is packed in a Windows-only executable package and is licensed for noncommercial use on Windows machines only.

  • Chris Ward 2007/12/20, 6:08 pm

    Well, the Monopoly is a fairly limited one.

    How much Symphony http://symphony.lotus.com/ is romping its way across the Internet ? Is the ‘invite-a-friend’ feature http://symphony.lotus.com/software/lotus/symphony/invitefriends.jspa driving the distribution channel ?

    How many Google Packs http://pack.google.com/intl/en-gb/pack_installer.html?hl=en-gb&gl=uk&utm_source=en_gb_UK-et-more&utm_medium=et&utm_campaign=en_gb_UK with Sun StarOffice ?

    How much OpenOffice http://www.openoffice.org/ ? SUN seem to be plugging it with every Java update, and we know that Java is the most important community property on the Internet. (Or at least, if we believe Sun’s marketing messages, that is so).

    How much Lotus Notes http://www-306.ibm.com/software/lotus/products/notes/ ? As of Lotus Notes 8, that deploys ISO26300, too. IBM gets paid when people use this one, and the users get an IBM warranty. Good on both counts. The blurb says 130 million sold, but I don’t believe that means 130 million people. Probably a good fraction of that, though.

    Microsoft are offering some rather deep discounts to certain segments of the market; schools, charities, and 300,000-person globally-integrated corporations, come to mind.

    Perhaps if we looked at the numbers who pay ‘full list price’, we might see a different story.

  • Jamie Royer 2007/12/20, 7:47 pm

    Another file format issue (maybe too off topic):

    I remember back sometime around 1995 when I was developing software under OS/2. IBM was working on making Windows software run under OS/2 and Microsoft was working to ensure it wouldn’t by continuously moving the function offsets around inside the executable.

    What amazed me was how quickly 3rd party software changed and required the latest OLE lib (or some other Win library) that didn’t work under OS/2.

    I eventually (but reluctantly) switched to NT 3.51 when it became harder and harder to use software that my boss was insisting I use.

    I was disgusted by how Microsoft was mistreating computer users by taking away their ability to use software of their choice.

    I was also shocked and dismayed at how people didn’t see a problem with this behaviour.

  • Anonymous 2007/12/23, 4:45 am

    I always had a problem with the definition of RTF as an standard, since it require Visual Basic for application (copyright note here) to access some of the hidden style property of that document format.

    How was developer’s expected to get access to these hidden style properties, without license the tools to access them ?

  • PolR 2007/12/23, 6:15 pm

    This is a bit off-topic but still appropriate to this blog.

    I just have seen Microsoft proposal to move to a separate Annex all “deprecated” features of OOXML that are contentious. Conformance will be redefined to avoid requiring the implementation of the “deprecated” features.

    I am puzzled. I thought the whole point of OOXML was to be compatible with the billions of existing documents. If essential mechanisms for backward compatibility are optional and not required for conformance, won’t we end up with conforming applications that won’t implement the backward compatibility? This is a “solution” that kills the point of having OOXML in the first place.

    This looks like a ploy to allow third party vendors to make “conformant” applications by the letter of the standard while only Microsoft can truly maintain the compatibility with existing documents.

  • mcinsand 2008/01/02, 3:55 pm

    >>I am puzzled. I thought the whole
    >>point of OOXML was to be compatible
    >>with the billions of existing

    You were being sarcastic, right? Anyone with any oxygen flow to the brain knows that MS wants interoperability the way the republicans want Hillary in the Oval Office. OOXML is just another tool to promote vendor lock-in. Otherwise, the zombies might wake up and use something more flimsy, versatile, and configurable than MS’ pathetic offerings.

  • Joe 2008/01/02, 5:04 pm

    This looks like a ploy to allow third party vendors to make “conformant” applications by the letter of the standard while only Microsoft can truly maintain the compatibility with existing documents.


    I disagree that MS does not want a standard. They do want a standard, because their customers are demanding one, and their competitors have one. But the only standard that MS will ever support is one that they hold all the keys to. They will have to be a little more subtle than they were with RTF, but the result will be the same.

    There will be good ISV support this time, but only with components and support licensed from MS. ISVs will be allowed to market products complementary to, but not competitive with, MS Office. There will be cross-platform support, as long as the platform is Windows.

    MS has lots of ways to implement a “standard” and yet keep any independent implementations as second-class citizens, irrelevant in the marketplace. There simply is no way they will willingly open the door to competition in their core markets.

  • timkb4cq 2008/01/02, 6:12 pm

    The fact is that not even the latest MS Office implements OOXML properly. Yes, it can read a compliant OOXML file, but it won’t write one.

    Even if OOXML gets the ISO blessing (still doubtful) it won’t really matter as there is NO compliant application. MS has already made clear they don’t intend to modify Office to be compliant with the standard.

    Any organization demanding compliance with an open standard must therefore abandon MS Office as it isn’t compliant with either ODF or OOXML.

    I think MS has shot the footgun this time.

  • Paul 2008/01/03, 11:35 am


    There is meaning behind the sarcasm.

    Microsoft has always argued that they need OOXML for backward compatibility with billions of existing documents in their legacy format. They have refused to fully support ODF besides ill-conceived converters because they claim ODF doesn’t have sufficient compatibility with legacy.

    To deprecate features meant for backward compatibility runs counter to that argument doesn’t it? What is the remaining *official* purpose of OOXML if backward compatibility is optional and will be removed in the future?

  • Anonymous 2008/01/03, 11:55 am

    What about Adobe and the PDF format or AutoDesk and the CAD format? As the IT community are we saying it ok to have close formats as all as your not Microsoft?

  • Rob 2008/01/03, 12:40 pm

    @anonymous, One battle at a time, my friend. The inability to do everything is not a valid excuse for doing nothing.

    I think one thing that makes the RTF/OOXML issue more critical, is that the word processor, along with spreadsheets, web browsers, email clients, etc., are the essential applications that we all use, everyone of us. We’ve done a pretty good job of making browsers and emails be based on standard protocols or formats. Using POP3 I can move from one client to another with little pain. With websites based on HTML/CSS I have my choice of web browsers at a range of prices with a range of features. But with word processors and spreadsheets, most of the world is using a format that perpetuates vendor lock-in and removes choice from consumers. So let’s fix that problem. Then we can worry about the niche formats.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/03, 1:43 pm

    Microsoft is one the few companies that only supports what it controls. It has had a tightening grip on the office productivity tools for years and now that it see there are competatior out there, it is beganing to tighten it furthur, and using the almighty dollar, which it has more plenty of, push propritory coding methods. There is an approved format for document management why not simply follow it and then improve that, as other will. Why are they wasting money and time trying to force people to use their software? Becasue they can’t do anything else in the face of ture compition, its like having a fighter who was the first one to defeat anyone, and sacring everone else who comes to challange him/her has never fought after that inital fight, comes face to face with a real opponent taht will not back down, and begins to shit its pants. Because they can’t compete, they have no innovations and have changed absolutily nothing. What is worse is that they have began alienaiting their consumers by changing everything with new Office 07 and removed some very crutial feature that should not have been removed in the first place.

  • Anonymous 2008/01/04, 7:25 am


    (From wikipedia:) PDF is an open standard, and recently took a major step towards becoming ISO 32000.

    As far as Autocad goes, not that many people use it for file interchange (it is not really a monopoly at all, there are many competing cad products.) For file exchange, people use stuff like “STEP” – ISO 10303.

    So basically yeah, people are like, SO unfair to Microsoft, yah!

  • Anonymous 2008/04/29, 11:39 pm

    New version of the RTF Specification is now available! The Microsoft Office Word blog announcement proudly describes how they sorted out deficiencies in the previous RTF specification, so this new version is the best yet!

    It’s interesting to evaluate the announcement from a non-Microsoft point of view…


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