Diversity vs. Conformity

Willie Shoemaker and Wilt Chamberlain

Do you remember the print ads for American Express that showed jockey Willie Shoemaker and NBA star Wilt Chamberlain standing barefoot on the beach in matching white suits?

I liked that ad so much that I had a copy of it hanging in my office for a long time in the 80s when it first came out. It was a striking image that conveyed how some people break the mold and can't be made to look like others, even if you put everyone in the same simple clothing.

Diversity is a word that gets a lot of lip service these days, but for many people it's truly a way of life. My family includes a variety of races, religions and lifestyles, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The radio in my car is tuned to liberal NPR on the FM side and ultra-conservative KTTH on the AM side, because I love bouncing back and forth to hear both sides of a breaking story.

When I interviewed at Microsoft with a Guatemalan who reported to an Italian-American who reported to an Indian who reported to an Irish-American, I knew I was in the right place.  And the diversity of Microsoft's workforce is truly one of the pleasures of working here.  I love to travel and talk to people from other parts of the world, and here at Microsoft I can get perspectives from many different cultures without leaving the building.

1984 Macintosh commercial

Another ad from the 80s that I'll never forget was Chiat/Day's ad for Apple's Macintosh that ran during the 1984 Super Bowl. What a great ad that was. In an obvious reference to George Orwell's "1984," it showed rows of drab uniformly dressed men sitting before a giant screen watching Big Brother. A woman wearing the only bright colors in the room comes running down the aisle pursued by security guards, and she throws a sledgehammer through the screen, causing it to explode and die.

It was another iconoclastic celebration of diversity, and the message from Apple was clear: IBM wants you to be a conformist, and we want you to be your creative and unique self.

It seems that not much has changed over at IBM. They still want to have centralized "really smart people" in an ivory tower who decide what everyone else should do and how they should do it. These days, though, having lost the stranglehold they once had on the desktop PC business, they're trying to establish mandated conformity in another area: document formats.

Open XML and ODF meet very different customer requirements, but IBM seems to think that all customers should use ODF. They have lobbied for ODF mandates in various state and federal governments (which would make it illegal for government employees to use anything else), they were the sole negative vote against Ecma's standardization of Open XML, and now they're spending a lot of time and energy trying to convince people that Open XML shouldn't be an ISO standard. The message we hear over and over from IBM these days could be paraphrased as "ODF already delivers what everyone needs, so there should not be any other international document-format standards."

Now why would they assume we all have the same requirements and we'll all be happy with the exact same document format? I guess that tells us there's strong conformity within IBM, but out here in the diverse real world people do lots of different things with documents. Some of us want to integrate business data from custom schemas into documents. Some of us want compatibility with documents we've already created. Some of us want the flexibility of content controls, or the power of XML mapping, or the simplicity of altChunk conversion for forward migration of our existing documents.

But at IBM, everyone has identical document requirements. Or do they? 🙂

A few quick searches of IBM.com over at Google (yeah, some of us here in Redmond still use Google, see "diversity" above) returns some interesting results. It seems that there are a couple thousand of the old Office binary documents on IBM's web site, including Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and lots of Powerpoint presentations. They also have thousands of text files, thousands of PDF files, and even a few dozen RTF files. Hey, maybe IBM has changed! Maybe they're becoming more diverse after all.

But where are the ODF documents? There are no ODF documents on IBM.com, according to Google.

If you're curious why IBM has suddenly started making the case for lack of choice in file formats, Brian Jones has a post that explains where things stand in the ISO certification process. IBM is trying to influence the ISO certification process to convince various national standards bodies to not allow ISO certification of Open XML. After all, who needs another format? One peek inside the ivory tower will convince you that ODF is all we'll ever need.

Comments (17)
  1. Ok, let’s test this theory.  You typed:

    odt filetype:odt site:ibm.com

    so let’s type

    docx filetype:docx site:microsoft.com

    Funny.  Microsoft has released Office 2007, and has not a single Open XML file on its site!  I guess we can conclude something from this… or perhaps not.

  2. Doug Mahugh says:

    Well, Ben, that’s a reasonable point to make.  But nobody at Microsoft has suggested that Open XML should be the only format or lobbied for government mandates to use it, and Office 2007 isn’t officially out for everyone yet (the consumer launch will be the end of this month).

    I’ll bet you a Burning River Pale Ale that the number of DOCX files on Microsoft.com will increase dramatically over time.

  3. And I’ll bet you a chocolate milkshake (not much of a beer fan) that the number of ODT files on IBM.com will increase.  IBM seems to be using them more and more extensively, along with .odp file for presentations at shows, and so forth.  The reason they don’t show up on either site is because they are not universal enough yet.  Lowest common denominator is HTML, or perhaps the old Word binary formats.  

    But do we really want to reach for the lowest common denominator?  No.  So, you strive for one level while you continue to support a lower level.  I imagine the same is true for Microsoft.  I just don’t happen to hold it against Microsoft, and I am not sure why you think this proves much about IBM.

  4. Oh yes, and I guess I should point out that IBM does have ODF spreadsheets on their site.  Just try Googling

    ods filetype:ods site:ibm.com

    whereas, for what it is worth (i.e., not much), there are no hits for

    xlsx filetype:xlsx site:microsoft.com


    xlsb filetype:xlsb site:microsoft.com


    xlsm filetype:xlsm site:microsoft.com


    pptx filetype:pptx site:microsoft.com

    Do you see how silly a task this is?

  5. Doug Mahugh says:

    I agree that as a metric of anything these numbers can be a bit silly, but I think they’re made more interesting by IBM’s efforts to influence the ISO process.  When they’re mounting a worldwide campaign to convince people that the existence of ODF makes other formats unnecessary, and explaining in great detail the reasons to avoid the Office binary formats, most people will probably find it interesting to know that IBM.com contains about 1000 Office binary documents for each ODF document.

  6. zasx says:

    After just browsing IBM’s to confirm you, I am having trouble finding anything other than PDFs, another open file format 🙁

  7. W^L+ says:

    I just typed filetype:odt and guess what?  Google does not index that file type.  This means that we do not know whether IBM has files of this type on one of their public sites, nor do we know how many they might have if they do have them.

  8. W^L+ says:

    I was wrong about that.  On the Sun.com site, there were a few .ODT documents listed.  But before I had posted the previous message, I had even looked at EDU sites where I know that they use StarOffice or OpenOffice.org without finding any .ODT or .ODS docs listed on Google.

    I also checked under advanced search settings, where there is no such option listed.

    IBM’s .ODS files are all relatively new (2006).  Could it be that they are just starting to post them?

    More importantly, why post office application formats for static documents that should be in PDF form? I am thinking of e.g., http://www-03.ibm.com/systems/za/x/partner/xls/Tricon_Inventry.xls

  9. just curious says:

    Ben – that’s poor form – you should have included a link to the post on your blog (http://www.geniisoft.com/showcase.nsf/archive/20070119-0821) where you say Doug’s a zealot.

    You are always very quick to comment on lots of blogs about ODF / OpenXML. I looked at your site and it seems you have close ties to IBM, are you an IBM Business Partner or something?

  10. I have seen nothing from IBM concerning use of binary formats, except for a general promotion of XML and more readable, easy to access formats.  Not saying it isn’t out there, but I haven’t seen it.  In any case, it is going to be a while before that changes, no matter how the process turns out for Open XML or ODF, since the current "standards" are combination of HTML, PDF and MS Office binaries.

  11. Doug Mahugh says:

    Ben, those two ODF spreadsheets on IBM’s site sure have you impressed.  You’re right, I was wrong: IBM does use ODF documents on their web site, and the use of the plural “documents” as you’ve done several times now is correct.

    Regarding IBM’s characterization of the binary formats, the IBM blogs I’ve seen very consistently refer to them as “Microsoft’s legacy binary formats” or “Microsoft’s proprietary formats,” which doesn’t sound to me like an endorsement of their use.

    As for zealotry, everything I write is signed “Open XML Technical Evangelist,” so I think my role is pretty clear: my job is helping developers work with the file formats.  on the other hand, if you’d care to explain your reason for doing things like trying to start a rumor that Excel “favors” the XLSB format in the last 24 hours, that might be of interest to your readers.  Is that part of a deliberate agenda of misleading the public for some reason, or were you really confused about that?  It would be great if you could explain the steps that led to that confusion, because it’s sure hard to envision how it happened.  If we’ve got some misleading material published somewhere, I’d like to clear that up.

  12. I’m not the least bit impressed by the two spreadsheets, just pointing out that it was technically incorrect to make the original point.

    As for the language, I think you are correct that IBM is fairly intentionally referring to the binary formats as "legacy" and "proprietary".  I have taken those to mean "as opposed to new XML formats", but I see your point.  Part of the difficulty there is that I have heard Microsoft employee’s also talk about the "legacy binary formats", as a way of differentiating and distinguishing them from the new Open XML formats, but generally in a more descriptive and less pejorative way than some of the IBM people.

    By the way, I posted about this topic on my blog, but am not sure of the URL format you use.  The link is http://www.GeniiSoft.com/showcase.nsf/archive/20070119-0821 and it isn’t very complimentary,I’m afraid.

  13. Kensho says:

    Open XML and diversity don’t have a lot in common.  Surely you’ve read "The Cathedral and the Bazaar."

    IBM’s motivations are the same as mine.  Being beholden to a proprietary format is expensive and is stifling innovation.  Whether ODF is an ISO standard is really not important.  ODF’s importance is the fact that it is truly open.  Not openish.

    Microsoft has a policy of "embrace, extend and extinguish" in situations like this.  The web browser war was won this way, although the technique didn’t work so well with Java when Sun sued and won.  It’s no surprise that OpenXML can do things ODF can’t.

    ODF offers something OpenXML doesn’t — freedom.  Whether that’s important to us as users is an indivdual choice.

    I love the picture of the woman running down the isle with the sledge hammer.  If you squint, you can just make out the "ODF" on the hammer’s head.

  14. grauenwolf says:

    > Being beholden to a proprietary format is expensive and is stifling innovation.  Whether ODF is an ISO standard is really not important.  ODF’s importance is the fact that it is truly open.

    Really? Because from where I sit, it seems that ODF is also a proprietary format. Just because it is owned by IBM instead of Microsoft doesn’t make it any more free.

    IBM is screwing six ways from Sunday and you don’t even know it.

  15. grauenwolf says:


    Lotus Notes supports Word Binary and ODF

    Lotus Notes does not support OpenXML

    The majority of documents are created in Word.

    Microsoft is replacing Word Binary with OpenXML


    If OpenXML ‘wins’, Lotus Notes is royally screwed.

    IBM bet on Sun’s proprietary format, StarOffice/ODF, instead of Microsoft’s proprietary format MS Office/OpenXML. Now if ODF doesn’t ‘win’, they are in for a very expensive and time consuming rewrite.

  16. artcoder says:

    In response to the first comment "Funny.  Microsoft has released Office 2007, and has not a single Open XML file on its site"…

    Scroll down and you find a docx file for download on Microsoft Site:


  17. artcoder – I never said there were no .docx files on the Microsoft site, or at least I didn’t mean to imply that I could be sure.  I just meant that given the test specified, in other words, searching on Google for "docx filetype:docx site:microsoft.com", there were no hits.  There still are not.  What does that prove?  Precious little, but that is the equivalent of the search for "odt filetype:odt site:ibm.com" which was the guts of the original post.  so, I’m glad you found a .docx file for download on Microsoft.com, but the fact that Google didn’t find it means that the original point about IBM is quite likely faulty as well.

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