Microsoft Office Faces a New Challenge

Microsoft Office 2003

Like a lot of words in the English language, the noun “standard” means different things to different people.

For example, most computer users would consider the documents created by Microsoft’s Office applications, like Word and Excel, to be standard formats for word processors and spreadsheets. But to industry professionals, they are anything but.

There’s a very strong movement afoot that aims to establish a true open standard document format for all office applications, including Microsoft’s. The days of .doc and .xls may be coming to a close.

But, wait… everybody uses Microsoft Office and can open these files, right? Doesn’t that make them a standard?

Well, ubiquity doesn’t a standard make. (And, no, not everybody uses Office.)

A standard, in the formal sense, is a well defined, openly agreed upon set of rules and principles that can be easily understood and implemented in common by anyone. Microsoft’s Office document format is the antithesis of this. It is proprietary, unpublished, and guarded fervently by a swarming team of vicious lawyers.

In the user community, there is a sort of grudging acceptance of Microsoft’s faux-standard document formats. Governments lull themselves into the false comfort of Word documents being widely usable by their citizens. Businesses toss around Excel files like everybody is born with spreadsheet expertise.

Their logic goes something like this: if more people use Word or Excel, more people can share documents in that “standard” format.

And therein lies the problem: neither Word nor Excel is a standard. They’re just common. And what’s worse, they’re proprietary. The owners of these document formats have different interests than the users.

Microsoft’s objective is that everybody buys every new version of Office. This software represents their primary source of revenue. But as the bloated feature sets of Excel and Word reach critical mass there’s little the company can do to drive sales, other than modify the proprietary file formats, forcing users to upgrade or lose that false sense of compatibility.

I say “false” because, after all, information created and managed in the Microsoft Office environment doesn’t age gracefully. Word documents created just five years ago can’t be opened in the latest versions of the program. Information contained in Office documents is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to move into other application environments, like databases.

Luckily, the tide is now turning against Microsoft’s proprietary ways. Governments around the world are demanding that Microsoft either open its document formats, so that any program can use them, or adopt a standard document format that is already open.

The State of Massachusetts recently passed legislation to this effect, essentially making current versions of Microsoft software illegal on government computers starting next January. Indonesia has done the same. The EU is expected to follow suit sometime this year or next year.

This has put pressure on Microsoft to open up. Last year the company proffered a theoretical open format, called Open XML, to try and qualify its next generation of Office software in these regions. But it was recognized for what it was — a sham — and is largely considered to have failed.

Most governments are being drawn towards a true open standard called OpenDocument, which was developed by a global consortium of document format specialists (including Microsoft, ironically). Unlike the format for Microsoft’s Office applications, which is privately owned and managed, OpenDocument belongs to and is managed by the community. Agencies in the governments of Singapore, Brazil, France, Germany, the UK and Austria have already adopted applications supporting the OpenDocument format.

What this means is that a computer users can choose any word processing application that supports OpenDocument documents, rather than being stuck with Word because it’s the only one that can predictably open .doc files. It also means that businesses and governments will have more control over the legacy of the information they generate. Open standards, by their very nature, ensure that documents created this year can still be opened 10-20 years down the road.

OpenDocument is already being implemented in several word processing applications including Sun Microsystem’s StarOffice for Windows and Linux, NeoOffice for the Mac, and the free OpenOffice.org.

You might be inclined to think that the OpenDocument format is out to kill Microsoft Office. Quite the contrary. ODF is simply a standard that intends to provide software users with choice and compatibility. Plus, it offers longevity to their information.

Microsoft is free to adopt the ODF format and provide Office users with the ability to read and write standard ODF files — they don’t even have to kill native Word and Excel formats. To date, they have refused to do so, however.

This may be a watershed moment for Microsoft. If they remain stubborn and refuse to support an open document format that is widely adopted internationally, no doubt they’ll lose Office sales to ODF-compatible software. On the other hand, to offer support for ODF diminishes the sense of value many users have in the Office suite by admitting that the perceived “standard” quality of the software is false.

Either way, ODF promises to introduce the first real competition in the Office software arena that Microsoft has seen in a long time.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 10, 2006.

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