Microsoft Softens Tone in File Standards Fight

Two senior Microsoft executives on a media tour touting what they say are the company's good-faith efforts to work with competitors and the open source community released an "open letter" on Friday, calling for more choice and flexibility in standard file formats.

Redmond has been battling to ensure the Open XML format native to its Office 2007 product gains equal footing in the standards world with the Open Document Format (ODF), which is backed by rival companies such as IBM.

In the letter released Friday, Microsoft execs Tom Robertson and Jean Paoli stress that customers worldwide deserve choice and flexibility in standard file formats. They also paint Microsoft as taking pains to avoid confrontation over standards.

"Users have always had choice among formats and should continue to do so going forward," they write. "Microsoft has consistently supported choice, so it took no steps to hinder ISO/IEC's ratification of ODF 1.0 and supported ODF 1.0's addition to the American National Standards list. Microsoft will continue to support recognition of ODF 1.0 and other formats on such lists around the world as long as doing so in no way restricts choice among formats."

The letter does not name-check IBM, unlike a previous statement about the ODF-OXML battle Robertson and Paoli published in February. In that missive, the duo highlighted IBM's past refusals to endorse Open XML as a standard. IBM official Bob Sutor, the company's vice president for open source and standards, has publicly slammed Open XML, declaring it not a bona-fide open standard but instead a "vendor-dictated spec that documents proprietary products via XML."

Paoli and Robertson also argue that there are distinct differences between Open XML and ODF. "ODF's design may make it attractive to those users that are interested in a particular level of functionality in their productivity suite or developers who want to work that format," they wrote. "Open XML may be more attractive to those who want richer functionality, the ability to integrate business data into their documents by defining their own document schema, or a format that was designed to be backwards compatible with existing documents."

Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards, and Paoli, general manager for interoperability and XML architecture, have served as Microsoft's poster children for interoperability for some time now. (Paoli is also one of the co-creators of XML). The officials met with RDN on Thursday prior to the letter's release.

Despite Microsoft's cemented image as a monolithic corporation bent on world dominance, Robertson insists that their interop evangelism tour is going swimmingly. "I think the reaction has been largely positive," he says. "To the extent it hasn't been, it's been people taking a wait and see attitude. But that's what Jean and I have been saying for a year ... Don't listen to what we say, watch what we do."

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced four open source projects meant to promote cross-platform support for information cards. They also noted Microsoft's backing of a translator project that will allow ODF 1.0 users to work with Open XML documents.

Robertson says the company's recent string of IP deals with Linux vendors should be viewed as Redmond extending an olive branch to the open source community, and not a bullying tactic. "We have through these arrangements found a way to bridge the open source community and the commercal software community in a very effective, forward looking positive way. We will continue to work with iNovell, Xandros, Linspire and other open source vendors that want to work with us to build these bridges."

But Robertson also acknowledged the underlying business concerns at stake for Microsoft. "IP is the primary vehicle for which you promote innovation in the marketplace ... Commercial property not only gives you incentives to innovate, but it lets you share in innovation."

Robertson declined to comment on pending changes to the GPL 3 license. The Free Software Foundation is wrapping up work on the GNU Public License version 3 (GPLv3). The forthcoming license contains language intended to block Redmond from entering into further patent protection arrangements like the one it signed with Novell last year.

The entire open letter from Robertson and Paoli can be read here.

About the Author

Chris Kanaracus is the news editor for Redmond Developer News.