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.