What Microsoft’s track record tells us about OOXML’s future
If the discussion on OOXML was purely technical I don’t think there would be much debate. Apart from Microsoft employees and a few lost souls, for whom we can only wonder about their real motivations, I have yet to meet any technical person arguing that OOXML is a good specification.
The reality is that from a technical point of view OOXML is just plain terrible and the body of evidence proving this point only keeps growing as people get time to review it. Antonis Christofides of the Greek delegation in his write-up on Some clarifications on the OOXML Ballot Resolution Meeting, sums it all up with “the Ecma responses make the text slightly better, but though slightly better it is still abysmal.”
Given that, it means the only reason OOXML has even a chance to become an ISO standard is political. On that front I see two factors at play. First and for most is the extent of Microsoft’s powerful network built over the years which proves to be enough to, at least in some cases, skew the results in National Bodies. Second appears to be the belief by some people that by approving OOXML as an ISO standard they’re somehow bringing Microsoft to the table and taking control over the format.
It is this second point that I want to talk about here because I have no doubts that many well intentioned people fall in that latter category and I’m afraid they are badly mistaken. To be clear I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong on that front, but Microsoft’s track record leaves me no hope to see this happen.
Indeed, Microsoft’s track record shows that they never give away control and that they only use the standard process to appease customers’ fears by making them believe that everything is all right because their products are based on standards.
Let me share with you some personal experience on this so you can understand where I’m coming from.
At the time I was a W3C employee, in response to when Microsoft would fully implement CSS2 Microsoft’s representative once replied: “We will never do it. We have implemented what we are interested in. This is it.” Almost ten years later, this is still basically true. Yet, Microsoft at the same time kept pushing for CSS3 with new features they were interested in. What this told me is that they pick and choose.
Later, when I became IBM’s main representative at W3C and dealt with Microsoft to bring to W3C several of the Web services related specifications we were developing together I kept being confronted with the problem that while IBM leaned towards bringing the specifications early on to W3C Microsoft kept delaying this as much as possible. This kept me intrigued until one day my peer at Microsoft told me: “For us, the submission to W3C is the end of the road. What happens after doesn’t really matter.”
I didn’t need to ask why. The explanation was obvious. Once the specification is submitted to W3C Microsoft can tell its customers that it is a standard. Technically it’s not, but if any customer ever cares to ask it’s easy enough to put their fear to rest by explaining that the process is started and it’s simply a matter of time. By the time the standard eventually comes out, customers are already using Microsof’s technology and no longer have much choice if they find out that Microsoft doesn’t even bother adhering to the actual standard. They are locked-in.
Now, someone I’m sure could point out that they aren’t the only ones failing to be fully compliant to a given standard and for that matter I’m sure somebody will quickly bring up a case where IBM is at fault. But while I believe it usually is accidental what I got from Microsoft tells me that in their case it is not. It is simply part of their strategy.
So, back to OOXML. I’d like to know what makes people believe this isn’t going to be the case here. I’d like to understand what makes people think that all of a sudden Microsoft has decided to play nice and relinquish control over the technology that constitutes its biggest cash cow, mind you.
Just looking at the their response to the comments that were filed for the BRM I can already see where this is going. In response to the lack of use of standard technologies Microsoft has generously offered to ADD many of these technologies. This is the case of SVG for vector graphics for instance, or ISO 8601 for dates. But while doing so they were very careful not to require implementation of these technologies, and they were very careful not to remove any of the technologies they actually use.
This is all Microsoft needed. They can, and I predict will, ignore all these additions which are optional and stick to what they have. The only reason they were added was to remove reasons for National Bodies to vote against OOXML.
You’ll note that in this case, because governments aren’t satisfied with a mere submission to ISO, it was important for Microsoft to actually get the ISO standard label. That’s why they chose the shortest way and put all their resources into achieving this goal at all cost.
If OOXML becomes an ISO standard, I predict that they will claim compliance with the standard overnight. Quite easy thing to do when the standard was custom made for your product and every modification brought to it was carefully carved out as optional. Then they will either ignore the standard process altogether and dump a new version every once in while through ECMA+JTC1, or pretend they care about the standard process to appease any possible discontents and participate in its “maintenance” while still ignoring it in its product. They will undoubtedly continue to pick and choose.
And what this means is that, if OOXML becomes an ISO standard next week, all the people who thought they were forcing them to the table will simply have given them carte blanche to abuse the ISO standard label.
I hope we’ll never have to find out but if we do, I sincerely hope I’m wrong. I’m used to joke about the fact that I’m always right, but in fact, it that were the case I challenge Microsoft to prove me wrong. I’d be much happier if they did, I just see no reason to believe it.