Microsoft Does What The Others Didn't - InformationWeek

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10/28/2005
11:31 AM
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Microsoft Does What The Others Didn't

Microsoft, according to a number of reports, is "evolving its position" on the OpenDocument format. Although Microsoft told the State of Massachusetts last month that Office 12 will not support ODF -- and state officials effectively told Redmond to shove off by endorsing the format anyway -- the company was apparently hedging its bets in a big way.

Microsoft, according to a number of reports, is "evolving its position" on the OpenDocument format. Although Microsoft told the State of Massachusetts last month that Office 12 will not support ODF -- and state officials effectively told Redmond to shove off by endorsing the format anyway -- the company was apparently hedging its bets in a big way.The most recent hint that the company is planning an about-face appeared on Groklaw yesterday afternoon. Two French readers gave Groklaw a heads-up on a Paris company, Clever Age, which is working with Microsoft to create an ODF-Word conversion plugin. (The software, by the way, is quite real: It's available on SourceForge under a BSD-style license, which as Groklaw notes, is consistent with Microsoft's taste in open-source licensing models.)

This discovery followed a ZDNet blog entry by Dan Farber, who interviewed Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie on Tuesday. Ozzie let it slip that Microsoft was working with a French company on such a project, although he didn't say the converter was as far along (there's now a working prototype, according to Clever Age) as it apparently is.

Although I'm just catching on to Microsoft's new tune on ODF, as is Slashdot, which posted an item about Dan Farber's blog a few hours ago, another journalist really deserves the credit for jumping on this more than two weeks ago. Andy Updegrove, who publishes the "Standards Blog" on The ConsortiumInfo.org, noted in an October 10 post that Microsoft was being very careful never to say never about ODF support. In fact, Updegrove says, Microsoft executives contacted him after he published a feature on the Massachusetts decision and its implications to make it clear: The company's position towards ODF support was a matter of what its own customers said they wanted, not a religious issue.

If Microsoft does, in fact, announce that it will support ODF in Office 12, it will certainly disappoint fans of StarOffice, OpenOffice.org, ThinkFree Office, and various other competitors who have high hopes but vanishingly small present-day market shares from which to begin their battles. These groups would dearly love for Redmond to hand over some of its customers, especially public-sector organizations that may follow Massachusetts down the ODF path.

If that doesn't happen, then it suggests that Microsoft actually possesses a remarkable trait for a company with such a commanding market position: the ability to turn around and fix a mistake. Don't expect Steve Ballmer to call a press conference so that he can apologize to the world for dissing ODF; in fact, As Ozzie's comments to Dan Farber suggest, the company has moved carefully enough to save face and eventually to deny that it changed its position at all.

That's fair enough, especially given the irony of Corel's position to date on providing ODF support in Word Perfect. Updegrove cites another ZDNet interview, this time between David Berlind and Corel WordPerfect communication manager Greg Wood, as yet another example of Corel doing everything except committing to ODF support in WordPerfect. It's the same sort of hokum Wood laid on Updegrove a week ago, and it's an embarrassing position for a company that was not only a founding member of OASIS, but actually sat on the committee that created ODF.

The true irony, however, takes WordPerfect back long before its association with Corel, to a time when it owned a commanding position in the office productivity software market. Microsoft didn't, strictly speaking, beat WordPerfect in head-to-head competition; it's more fair to say that WordPerfect, through its own arrogance, blindness, and stupidity, handed over more than enough customers to seal its eventual fate. Nearly 20 years later, teetering on the verge of absolute irrelevance and largely invisible, we hear from WordPerfect again: making just enough noise to prove that some things never change.

On the other hand, some things do change. A week ago, I believed that Microsoft was destined to follow in the footsteps of WordPerfect, and IBM, and any number of other Kings of the Universe who followed their own egos straight off the edge of a cliff. Now, however, it looks as if Microsoft is determined to avoid that fate, at least for the time being. In the process, it will give its own would-be successors a much harder path to follow. Yet I have to Microsoft credit: Few companies could spend such a long time on top, and face so little serious competition, without falling for the delusion that it not only dominates the market, but that it is the market.

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