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To read comments to this article, go here
MS: OK. OK, we'll set up an "OS" project to build an ODF killer. Er, we mean translator.
Thursday, July 06 2006 @ 09:09 AM EDT

Now that others have built a translator for ODF/Open XML interoperability after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts put out a call for one, Microsoft announces it would like to sponsor an "Open Source" project to build one of its own. What need is this filling? I'd say Microsoft's need to stay in the game. Can there be any other reason to duplicate work that has already been done?

I'm not sure why Microsoft is announcing an "Open Source" project, though. What do they need that for? The press release clearly says that "Microsoft is developing the translation tools in collaboration with the France-based IT solution provider Clever Age and several independent software vendors, including Aztecsoft in India and Dialogika in Germany." PR, maybe? Clever Age, indeed.

I see the same strategy that we saw in the Adobe PDF dispute:

In an ongoing dispute with Adobe, Microsoft said earlier this month it had canceled plans to include an automatic way to save documents in the popular Portable Document Format in Office 2007, due out to consumers in January. Instead, users will have to download separate, free software to save documents created in Office products such as Word and Excel as PDFs....

The spat with Adobe, which developed the popular PDF technology, comes as Microsoft is preparing to launch its own competing format for saving documents that cannot be easily modified. Microsoft's technology is called XPS, which stands for XML Paper Specification.

Microsoft had previously said Office 2007 would be able to save documents as PDFs. But Microsoft claimed it dropped plans to include the format after Adobe asked it to charge customers for the ability to save Office documents in either the PDF format or Microsoft's new, competing XPS format. Microsoft says it refused.

So, Microsoft will let you download Adobe's PDF, if you absolutely insist, and install it yourself, but alternatively you can just use Microsoft's competing software, with its built-in competing PDF-like tools, making Adobe obsolete.

Zap. Buh-bye, Adobe. Is Microsoft clever, or what?

Ditto with ODF. Here's the choice it is trying to posit: You will have to download their ODF translator yourself and install it. Or, just stick with Microsoft's one-stop competing solution that is built in to their software offering. Considering Microsoft's monopoly position, and my mom's and most governments' typical technical skills, guess what Microsoft hopes moms and governments will choose? I see a plan in not building the ODF translator into Microsoft's software. So truly clever. It looks open. But it's marginalizing ODF. I think the press release might better have been titled, "Microsoft announces what it hopes will be its ODF killer."

Here's how the press release begins:

Microsoft Expands Document Interoperability

Company to sponsor open source project for Open XML-ODF file translation to deliver more choice for government customers and their constituents.

REDMOND, Wash. — July 5, 2006 — Expanding on its customer-focused commitment to interoperability, Microsoft Corp. today announced the creation of the Open XML Translator project. The project, developed with partners, will create tools to build a technical bridge between the Microsoft® Office Open XML Formats and the OpenDocument Format (ODF). This work is in response to government requests for interoperability with ODF because they work with constituent groups that use that format. In addition to being made available as free, downloadable add-ins for several older versions of the Microsoft Office system, the translation tools will be developed and licensed as open source software. The translation tools will be broadly available to the industry for use with other individual or commercial projects to accelerate document interoperability and expand customer choice between Open XML and other technologies.

“By enabling this translator, we will make both choice and interoperability a more practical option for our customers,” said Jean Paoli, general manager of interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft. “We believe that Open XML meets the needs of millions of organizations for a new approach to file formats, so we are sharing it with the industry by submitting it, with others, to become a worldwide standard. Yet it is very important that customers have the freedom to choose from a range of technologies to meet their diverse needs.”

If Microsoft had a "customer-focused commitment to interoperability", why is the EU Commission about to fine it millions per day for failure to provide the necessary tools to allow competitors to interoperate? Think it through, people. And ask yourself: has Microsoft said their Open XML will not have proprietary extensions? If not, what might the plan be, do you think?

Microsoft is unable to hold itself back from telling us how their solution is "better" than ODF. Interoperable with an inferior product, to hear them tell it. The press release continues:

Open XML and ODF were designed to meet very different customer requirements. By developing the bidirectional translation tools through an open source project, the technical decisions and tradeoffs necessary will be transparent to everyone — Open XML and ODF advocates alike. The Open XML formats are unique in their compatibility and fidelity to billions of Office documents, helping protect customers’ intellectual investments. Open XML formats are also distinguished by their approach to accessibility support for disabled workers, file performance and flexibility to empower organizations to access and integrate their own XML data with the documents they use every day. In contrast, ODF focuses on more limited requirements, is architected very differently and is now under review in OASIS subcommittees to fill key gaps such as spreadsheet formulas, macro support and support for accessibility options. As a result, certain compromises and customer disclosures will be a necessary part of translating between the two formats.

Ah. I see they didn't join the OASIS committee handling ODF for nothing. Did I tell you or did I tell you? ECMA, by contrast, just rubber stamps submissions and sends the Microsoft XML proposed "standard" on its merry way, or so I hear. Here's how ECMA describes itself [PDF, p. 20]:

"Offers industry a 'fast track', to global standards bodies, through which standards are made available on time....

Offers a path which will minimise risk of changes to input specs."

OASIS, in contrast, is truly open, and it's not controlled by one vendor, nor is it a fast track to speed submissions through. That's not a bug. It's a feature, particularly if what you are looking for is something that is truly an open standard, not Brand X "open".

So, I translate this part of the press release as Microsoft saying their ODF interoperability tool won't work as well as their own competing XML offering that requires no downloading or installation. Can a leopard change its spots? They know now that governments are serious about open standards, and so they are doing the minimum they think it takes to seem to qualify, while simultaneously spreading some FUD. How do you like this next paragraph, hilariously titled "Interoperable by Design":

Interoperable by Design

Today Microsoft Office Word, Excel® and PowerPoint® already include built-in support for dozens of formats to enable interoperability across products. In addition to the default Open XML file formats, the 2007 Microsoft Office system will include a new menu option that points users to add-ins for PDF and XML-based formats such as the XML Paper Specification (XPS), and now ODF as well. Because these add-ins are available online from a download service, customers will have easy access to the latest industry file format options along with the comprehensive Open XML formats.

“Interoperability is a key priority of the government in the e-governance paradigm. Our ability to meet the needs of citizens will be greatly increased by the interoperability and integration of open, XML-based standards,” said M. Moni, deputy director general of the National Informatics Centre, who is spearheading the process of e-government standards in India. “It also empowers citizens to use the software of their choice. So, we are very pleased to see Microsoft take a responsible and open, yet practical, approach to our interoperability requirements.”

As you can see, they will merely point users to add-ins. If you want an ODF translator, get it and install it yourself. PDF too. There are practical consequences, as RedMonk's Stephen Grady explains:

Q: Ok, so what about that limitation? What's the catch with the ODF support?

A: Well, let's say that you're the State of Massachusetts and you're going ahead with your support for ODF as part of your open standards agenda. If your agenda is pro-open standards, rather than anti-Microsoft, as I believe it is having heard former MA CIO Peter Quinn speak, this is potentially great news. But one would think that for Microsoft Office as an ODF platform to function effectively, you'd have to be able to change the default "Save As" behavior on a system-wide basis.

Otherwise, when one of your workers fired up Word, wrote a memo, and simply clicked Save it would output as either binary Word or MSXML depending on the version. Which would result, I'd think, in chaos particularly in larger institutions. We've even had that problem at RedMonk with some of us on Word and some of us on OO.o. Expecting users to remember to manually select "Save As ODF" each time they need to create an ODF document - which in enterprises that mandate ODF will be every time - is not realistic.

As I understand it, however, having queried Microsoft on this (and they should feel free to correct me if I got it wrong) changing the default "Save As" behavior is not possible. Well, technically it's possible, but not without locking virtually everything else in the File menu down; a solution that is not likely to be acceptable to wide audiences.

This means that while users will in theory be able to consume ODF assets, and eventually author them, the support within Office will be biased towards Microsoft's own format. While that's understandable for competitive reasons, it's less than ideal for customers.

But wait a sec. I just read a review of Vista that seemed to me to be saying that the new version of Word won't be backwards compatible in all respects:

A welcome new feature detects and removes unwanted comments, hidden text, or personal information to ensure that sensitive information doesn't escape when documents are published. Word allows you to open and edit older Word files, but saves them in a new file format by default. As you would expect, the new format is not backwards compatible. This is an important consideration if you need to exchange files with others who may not have made the upgrade.

Let me please be the first to point out what the lack of backward interoperability with older versions of Word will mean for the blind. First, there are no assistive technologies available for Vista, yet, because Vista isn't ready. So there will be a gap for the blind. Then, on top of that, judging from this review, they will be faced with an unhappy choice: either upgrade to Vista where there is as yet no software that works for them to translate to speech, and hope other companies write something quick, or stay with what they have, which works well on older versions of Word, but at the cost of being unable to interoperate with documents created by Vista. I note that Microsoft's Brian Jones says that the ODF translator tools will be available on the following schedule:

The Word tool should be available by the end of this year, with the Excel and PPT versions following in 2007.

Didn't Microsoft tell us how vital it is to be backward compatible? Wasn't that why their XML was "better" than ODF? My stars, it's hard to keep up with Microsoft's public face.

The blind have another option. They can stay with the Microsoft software they have now and use the community-developed ODF translator, which means governments can immediately choose to go with ODF solutions and the disabled will be able to participate. You can hit the ground running. Or, with OpenOffice.org, you can function smoothly with ODF, and you can interoperate with Word also, speaking of one-stop solutions. You don't want to have to be retrained? If you read the review, you saw that Vista means you'll have to be retrained anyway, because it's so different from what you are currently using:

To try and make features easier to find and minimize on-screen clutter, Microsoft has replaced the traditional menus and toolbars with the "Ribbon," an interface device that presents commands (buttons, icons and options) under a set of tabs.

As an example, Office Word 2007 offers tabs for writing, inserting, working with tables, altering page layout, conducting mailings, and more. Excel, on the other hand, serves tabs for creating worksheets, inserting charts, applying formulas, and more. In theory, only relevant tabs appear when they can support the immediate task at hand. Thus, as an example, Excel's chart commands only appear when you're working with graphs.

Ribbons will likely be easier for novices to learn, but may prove frustrating for experienced users that are accustomed to the original MS Office interface. As it stands, it takes time to learn exactly which commands reside on which ribbons, and, for now, ribbons can't be customized to your liking (WYGIWYG - What You're Given Is What You Get).

While the new interface may or may not improve productivity in the long term, there will definitely be some short-term learning and adapting for everyone. Fortunately, experienced users will still be able to apply familiar keyboard shortcuts.

So, you might consider choosing a solution that doesn't come from a company that talks out of both sides of its mouth. I'd say that's not a good sign. And keep in mind also that Vista will make Windows Genuine Advantage a mandatory feature, so your software will be calling home with your personal data unless or until Microsoft unilaterally decides to phase it out, unless the two class-action lawsuits regarding WGA are successful in shutting this feature down sooner. Governments too might wish to consider the WGA factor quite seriously when making a decision. Nothing in any FOSS software that I know of ever calls home. For one thing, there is no home. Linus and the Free Software Foundation don't care what you do with GNU/Linux software. Use it in freedom, your privacy intact. They don't snoop on you or collect data about you. It's a major value-add in FOSS software, most particularly for governments. As for individuals, this security expert advises individuals to avoid Vista, due to security concerns:

A security expert believes that home computer users should give Windows Vista a wide berth if they're concerned about malware and other security issues. Microsoft has marketed Vista as the long awaited watertight version of Windows that will address the security concerns of past Windows releases, which now require a multi-tiered armoury of security tools to keep hackers at bay.

Graham Clulely, senior technology consultant at email and web security provider Sophos, believes that Windows has become an unsuitable operating system for unsophisticated home users who are unable to stay abreast of the security requirements necessary to safely go online. What's more, Clulely does not expect this to change with the release of Vista.

Not wishing to offend anyone, but judging from public statements by some politicians recently, sometimes government users aren't technically so clueful either. It's something to consider.

As for developers, if you've always wanted to give Microsoft a leg up in the competition against FOSS, here's your chance. Besides, is there a developer anywhere who doesn't love to reinvent the wheel? That way, governments like Massachusetts, Belgium and Denmark won't keep walking away from Microsoft products. If you share Microsoft's goals, then do give them a hand pronto. Be aware it's under the BSD license, though, so you're helping for free, but the code can be taken proprietary and used by anyone that wishes to make some money from your work in a closed source product, and there is no requirement that they contribute back any code. You get to contribute, but they don't have to reciprocate, so there is no common pool of code for all to benefit from. Also, note this quotation from Microsoft's Jason Matusow in Peter Galli's coverage in eWeek:

While there was no licensing conflict that prevented BSD code from being included in a project licensed under the GPL (GNU General Public License), "the challenge becomes that the GPL then trumps the other license on a going forward basis for that project," he said.

Galli presents some info about why Microsoft is announcing an "Open Source" project:

Jason Matusow, Microsoft's director of standards affairs, noted that Microsoft was not contributing code or providing architectural guidance for the Open XML Translator project....

"Predictable timelines, milestones, deliverables, documentation and testing are things that don't automatically happen. If you look at any of the big, successful open-source projects, they achieve commercial quality because there are commercial players behind them with funding and professional development," Matusow said.

There had also been no regulatory pressure on Microsoft to develop these translation tools, he said, adding that the discussion about interoperability had been going on in Europe for a number of years, "and we take our responsibilities and obligations very seriously on any of these topics of what happens with the government."

In other words, the motivation for the creation of these translation tools was "not about an overwhelming response from enterprises and other customers seeking ODF support," but rather to respond to governmental concerns about being able to communicate with constituents that might choose to make use of the ODF, Matusow said.

May I ask why, if Microsoft thinks that "big, successful open-source projects" achieve success only when "there are commercial players behind them with funding and professional development" it has chosen not to contribute code or architectural guidance to the Open XML Translator project? By the way, Microsoft's view is mistaken. GNU/Linux was a huge success before any large commercial players got involved. That's why they got involved.

Here's the info on where developers who are out of their cotton-pickin' minds can go to write some code for Microsoft:

Working With Industry Partners

Microsoft is developing the translation tools in collaboration with the France-based IT solution provider Clever Age and several independent software vendors, including Aztecsoft in India and Dialogika in Germany. A prototype version of the first translator added to Word 2007 will be posted today on the open source software development Web site SourceForge (http://sourceforge.net/projects/odf-converter), under the open source Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license, where anyone can submit bugs and feedback or contribute to the project. The complete version of the Word translation tool is expected to be available free from the download site by the end of 2006, with add-ins for Excel and PowerPoint expected in 2007. Older versions of Office will have access to the translation tool via a free Compatibility Pack, which also provides free updates to enable Open XML format support.

“OpenXML represents a paradigm shift not only in its architecture but also in the customer needs it serves, opening organizations’ existing documents to take advantage of new content management and collaboration scenarios that weren’t possible even as recently as a few years ago ,” said Frédéric Bon, CEO of Clever Age. “Through the documentation Ecma International is creating and work such as the Open XML Translator project, customers will soon have the confidence that Open XML and ODF formats can coexist and new document scenarios will flourish. We are looking forward to working with the community of developers and businesses interested in XML documents.”

Ongoing Commitment to Interoperability

As demonstrated by the recent announcement of the Interoperability Customer Executive Council and the significant industry contributions to the Open XML file formats from leading institutions like the British Library and Apple Computer Inc. at Ecma International, Microsoft is broadening its long-term investments in and attention to interoperability across industries and platforms through such avenues as product design, collaboration agreements with other companies, standards and the effective licensing of its intellectual property. Additional information about Microsoft’s customer-focused interoperability commitment, including an open letter titled “A Foundation for the New World of Documents” by Chris Capossela, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Business Division Product Management Group at Microsoft, may be found online.

As you can see, Microsoft says it is all about interoperability, Microsoft's version of same. Let's be real. If Microsoft were really about interoperability, the EU Commission wouldn't need to fine them millions per day for failure to allow competitors to have the means to interoperate. My baloney meter is ringing off the hook. The EU Commission has concluded that Microsoft's software is not "interoperable by design," and that Microsoft is fighting to avoid letting it ever be that way. The company apparently would rather pay millions per day than comply with interoperability demands from the EU Commission. What should that tell you? But hey, that's in a courtroom. This is PR. Two different worlds.


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