A Macro Question About Microsoft And Standards – Oh Yeah – And Is Microsoft Really Committed to Open XML?


A colleague of mine, Stuart McKee, sat on a panel recently during a Red Hat event. His comments have drawn some attention, and now some FUD that I really feel needs to be addressed.

First of all, you can see the coverage here, here, here, and here. But the one I most want to comment is this one from ZDNet in the UK.

This really is the case of a tempest in a tea pot that has boiled out into the general discussion. Stuart is a great guy, very bright, and was on a panel that was demanding. Okay, no big deal. However the inaccuracies came about, either through misconstrued comments and/or simply misspeaking on something, they are none-the-less inaccurate.

The first set of stories focused on whether or not MS is still committed to Open XML. It is – it will be – and we have never said anything different from that. Check out Gray Knowlton’s blog as he is in the product team, and the group, that is working on this exact issue. We have always advocated choice in the marketplace, and yes – recently we announced that we would support ODF in Office. That does not mean we are stepping away from Open XML in the least. In fact, it is more of a statement of a deeper commitment to XML-based document formats…but that is a discussion for a different day. I’ll leave the rest of this discussion to Gray.

The bigger issues come from the ZDNet article. Has Microsoft been working on standards before Open XML? Has the company done work on standards in the past? Will we work on more standards in the future? The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

Every big software producer works on standards as they relate to the products they are producing. There are essentially three scenarios on a given product. First, to implement a standard. Second, to work on a specification that is in process of becoming a standard. Third, to contribute a technology specification to a standards body so that it may become a standard. Microsoft has been doing all three of these across THOUSANDS of standards for decades.

More than eight years ago, a corporate standards organization was formed in the company to help product teams be better participants in standards orgs, to make more strategic decisions about what and where to contribute specifications, and how to deal with the legal issues surrounding standards bodies (there is an entire specialization in the legal field for this kind of work believe it or not).

Currently, the standards organization at Microsoft has more than 25 full-time employees in it and is focused not only on standards, but how the company thinks about interoperability and standards as a whole. What’s more, because we are active in more than 150 standards orgs at any one time, and more than 400 overall – we have more than 600 product team and field employees who have been internally certified for standards work (and most of them are active in some committee or other). Our products have supported literally more than 10,000 standards and we have contributed specifications in the areas of development languages, runtimes, networking protocols, systems management, hardware, mobility, document formats, security,…the list goes on.

Anyone close to the industry knows that Sun, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Adobe…any of the big players have people sitting in dozens to hundreds of standards organizations at any time. Companies in the hardware space like Toshiba, Sony, Intel, Samsung, Nokia, Phillips, Siemens…they have even greater standards engagement. There is a reason they are known as industry standards…it is because industry is the major factor in behind the investment of engineering resources to work on these issues. There is often close communication/collaboration with academia on standards-setting as well, but the big money and people investments are from industry.

I think it is very important that we take a step back from the self-perpetuating cycle of reporters and bloggers quoting each other to really think through what is being said. There are big differences in opinions about the role of standards, about the future of certain technologies, about the balance between IP protection and “openness,” about the types of technologies that should be contributed…and more…but to work under the assumption that Microsoft (or any other big software company) is not committed to long-term investment in standardization is simply incorrect.

Comments (9)

  1. Wu Mingshi says:

    Hmm… is the post about the length and time Microsoft is involved in standardization process, or is it a hit back at people claiming Microsoft stuffed committees?

    As for the length and time argument, may be McKee should be the one to clarify the matter. Or w.r.t. to the quoted comments in para 2, perhaps it is time to give him a bollocking for his failure to find out facts about his employer and misrepresented the company.

    For stuffing committee, except zealots, nobody is going to question how many people a company bring to a table. That’s immaterial. After all, it is usually one company one vote. Even if one company has three votes, it is still rather limited influence. The accusation here is bringing in large number of people with the right to vote, but in real life do not care about the process. This is what I will call stuffing a commitee because the committee is influenced by non-stakeholders.

    I understand that it is always easier to get people who will benefit from a process to come out of the woodwork and vote for it. That is the way most committee works and people accept this. FSFE clearly made that accusation that pro OOXML brought in non-stakeholders to influence the decision making process. Some tangible proof of this is not the case is always welcome

  2. André says:

    Exactly, there was some exaggaration. Everyone knows that Microsoft is no unexperienced player in the field of standardisation and the campaign for the adoption of OOXML was carried out on a massive base in a ruthless but professionally organized way from which other players could learn a lot.

    But you can’t tell me that McKee’s message regarding the winner of the debate was not approved as he apparently said it two times.

    "There are big differences in opinions about the role of standards, about the future of certain technologies, about the balance between IP protection and "openness," about the types of technologies that should be contributed…"

    Exactly. The real annoyance with your company is that it invested into a redefinition of "open standards" to include rand terms. But sure there is a place for "open standards" as well as other "standards" and proprietary legacy formats. The question is therefore why this fight is carried out on a definition level rather than a policy recommendation level in matters of open standards. Choosing the first path annoyed many players.

    "and more…but to work under the assumption that Microsoft (or any other big software company) is not committed to long-term investment in standardization is simply incorrect."

    +++; Although your company got a bad fame on standard implementation its tactics in the standard field were not much different from its competitors’. E.g html. We know that Netscape didn’t care much about W3C compliance, possibly for good reasons i,e. fast growing user demands for features. It was the successful use of similar pratices by Microsoft that aligned competitors in their committment for open standards. Historically hypocrite, but a quite useful "rehabilitation".

  3. Mitch 74 says:

    Hello Jason,

    I guess, Stuart meant ‘ODF won the right to be natively supported in MS Office’; that would, indeed, explain much. However, this interpretation doesn’t hold up to the rest of his declaration. So, either MS have a rogue element, or MS as a whole is heavily divided on the matter (which could explain the delay with counter arguments).

    If you take into account:

    – OXML had to try twice at getting fast-track approval (ODF passed like a charm)

    – the final OXML specification is months late now (according to ISO rules, it means OXML isn’t a standard now)

    – 4 countries appealed the ISO process (as reported by ISO)

    – the staggering amount of technical, documented objections done to the specifications

    – add ISO difficulties caused by chair stuffing and sock puppets (both in favour and against);

    And then we get from MS:

    – ‘we couldn’t add ODF support sooner’

    – ‘we can’t support legacy formats anymore’

    – ‘ISO OXML support in MS Office 2007 is too difficult’

    During that same time, developers at Sun, Novell, Apple, Google, IBM, Corel, and FSF, managed to do just that – and some of them, in their spare time.

    If you compare the time required by MS to implement a file filter and support its existing one with other office suites, it seems like:

    – either there is not much staff in charge of all file filters on MS Office,

    – or the Office code base is so intricate you need a map and divine intervention to get out of here and not meet grues,

    – or a mix of the two: understaffing and extreme complexity.

    Why would MS Office be understaffed, considering how much it brings in? Either file filters are part of a monolithic structure (but SP1 proved it isn’t) or there was much feet dragging.

    So, if an MS official issues a statement like ‘ODF has won’, it can be understood as ‘MS will now add and support ODF because we really can’t do more than one modern file format at a time, OXML is a terrible PR stunt, and we finally acknowledged at MS that reinventing the wheel is a waste’.

    That’s the reasoning behind several of these takes, I think. Your post documents how much MS has taken part in standards talks, but you don’t mention:

    – CIFS and LDAP (you – MS – got fined!)

    – POSIX (Services for Unix? A real solution was long in coming)

    – (X)HTML (and lack of support in IE)

    – ECMAscript (and lack of improvement since 1999)

    – CSS (ditto, but from 2001 to 2006)

    – XML 1.0  (msxml got compliant in v.5, not before)

    – SenderID (eugh)

    – SVG (will MS drop VML? OOXML cites it as deprecated)

    – OpenGL (No, emulated support for 1.3 isn’t good enough – and mapping GLSL to HSLS isn’t that tough either)

    – MPEG4 (did you really need VC-1?)

    Yes, MS took part in all those standards, and may be at the source of several; you’ll notice however that all of them got complaints for ‘proprietary, incompatible, locked down implementation’.

    MS woke up, most notably last year (the $1.4b fines might just have helped a little :p); if that’s the case, it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that fully embracing ODF could be part of said waking up.

    That’s a bunch of contradictory clues, don’t you think?

    Don’t misunderstand me, if the relaxed OXML scheme finally gets clear enough and Strict OXML fuses with future revisions of ODF, as agreed by MS as a goal of SC34(?), I’ll be one very happy user: i can has cheezburger (backward compatibility) and eat it too (single, durable standard).

    Mitch

  4. Anon says:

    >FSFE clearly made that accusation that pro OOXML brought in

    > non-stakeholders to influence the decision making process.

    >Some tangible proof of this is not the case is always welcome

    I thought the burden of the proof is on the accuser.

    Someone might also question why does FSFE consider itself a stakeholder in this process. Who are they by the way?

  5. Dave Hybrid says:

    Great post, really helped me understand, thanks!

  6. Enough says:

    "We have always advocated choice in the marketplace"

    In the past decade Microsoft testimony and discovery documents in a a large number of court cases, leaked e-mails and memoranda have made Microsoft’s internal workings and stragegy too abundently clear to make the above a credible statement. It has been dedicated to lock out the competition and spread disinformation about competing products by means of multiple proxies to give the impression of impartiallity and truth.  Microsoft "always advocated choice in the marketplace" is a true statement if we redifine  "choice" to mean : "not having another option but buy Microsoft products."

    "The bigger issues come from the ZDNet article. Has Microsoft been working on standards before Open XML? Has the company done work on standards in the past? Will we work on more standards in the future? The answers are yes, yes, and yes."

    In view of Microsoft anti-competitive strategies outlined in the aformentioned documents the above statements become true when one redefines "work" to mean "learn about ahead of time to be in a position to embrace, extend and extinguish".

    "The larger issues" thus  become "Has Microsoft been involved in standards to learn about upcoming standards to be able to embrace and extend these ahead of time?", and "Will it continue to do so in the future?" The answers are yes and , given the recent Microsoft stuffed ISO SC34 committie proposal to take over ODF maintanance from OASIS, yes.

    To Microsoft "standard" means "only to be implemented by Microsoft and not or only in a cripled way by others."

  7. Intel Burn Test says:

    I really like the idea of combining several concepts into one. Hoping for more like this in the future.

  8. the real question is, is microsoft going to be open source with anything?