Dirty tricks won't help OOXML

Subverting the ISO process is winning Microsoft few friends.
Paul Furber
By Paul Furber, ITWeb contributor
Johannesburg, 02 Apr 2008

In a private memo to the company's internal Office Group, 10 years ago, Microsoft head Bill Gates wrote: "Allowing Office documents to be rendered very well by other people's browsers is one of the most destructive things we could do to the company. We have to stop putting any effort into this and make sure that Office documents very well depends on PROPRIETARY IE capabilities."

Things haven't changed much. Instead of adopting the Open Document Format (ODF) like the majority of the industry, Microsoft has put enormous effort into pushing its own Office Open XML (OOXML) format over the last two years.

But the methods the company has used to convince look more and more like a sustained campaign of dirty tricks rather than mere participation in a standards adoption process. Microsoft has:

* Issued misleading statements about who supports OOXML;
* Exerted pressure on governments when national standards votes didn't go its way;
* Stuffed voting committees with yes-men before votes were taken;
* Smeared individual committee members who voted against it; and most seriously of all:
* Undermined the ISO fast-track process to such an extent that the EU is now investigating some member countries.

These are not isolated incidents. From Malaysia through Norway, New Zealand, Germany, Croatia and Poland, the story reads the same way: Microsoft is apparently so desperate to get OOXML approved as an ISO standard that it will bully, cheat, bribe and undermine to get what it wants.

A member of the Brazilian national body who attended the ISO Ballot Resolution Meeting last week revealed the process was a disaster, with few of the thousands of problems with the standard raised actually discussed because of lack of time, and the voting process reduced to a kind of "Sophie's Choice".

It all sounds remarkably in line with another internal document from Microsoft, written by then technical evangelist James Plamondon and made part of the public record in the Comes vs Microsoft case, which describes in detail how to force Microsoft's own standards on everyone:

"Our mission is to establish Microsoft's platforms as the de facto standards throughout the computer industry.... Working behind the scenes to orchestrate 'independent' praise of our technology, and damnation of the enemy's, is a key evangelism function during the Slog. 'Independent' analyst's report should be issued, praising your technology and damning the competitors (or ignoring them).

"'Independent' consultants should write columns and articles, give conference presentations and moderate stacked panels, all on our behalf (and setting them up as experts in the new technology, available for just $200/hour). 'Independent' academic sources should be cultivated and quoted (and research money granted) ... Every possible source of leverage should be sought and turned to our advantage."

National interests

There are hundreds of serious technical problems with the standard and it is a minefield of potential patent violations for third parties.

Paul Furber, contributor, ITWeb

But governments are not to be pushed around as easily as tame standards bodies like ECMA, or small competitors like Netscape and Be.

Many of them realise that any document standard must serve the public first and private interests second. Microsoft can write as many words as it likes about how superior its 6 000+ page conglomeration of legacy technology really is, but programmers and standards experts are not fooled.

There are hundreds of serious technical problems with the standard and it is a minefield of potential patent violations for third parties.

Nor are some governments fooled: our own minister of public service and administration has shown she has a firm grasp of the long-term issues when it comes to open standards.

Addressing the Idlelo conference, in Ghana, last week, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi said the adoption of open standards by governments is a "critical factor in building interoperable information systems which are open, accessible, fair and which reinforce democratic culture and good governance practices.

"It is unfortunate that the leading vendor of office software, which enjoys considerable dominance in the market, chose not to participate and support ODF in its products, but rather to develop its own competing document standard which is now also awaiting judgment in the ISO process. If it is successful, it is difficult to see how consumers will benefit from these two overlapping ISO standards."

They won't of course - only Microsoft will benefit from the widespread adoption of OOXML. Adopting open standards so that anyone can render Office documents very well is one of the most destructive things the company can do to itself, as Gates correctly pointed out a decade ago.

But making enemies of governments and regulatory authorities the world over might be just as destructive.

The EU has already shown it is more than willing to go after violations of law by Microsoft. If it starts questioning the ISO process, OOXML might go nowhere, even if it's successfully fast-tracked.