A propos de la bataille des formats bureautiques
Par Bernard Golden, Navica Software (en anglais)

Publié le 12 juin 2008

20080611Maybe I am a Prophet, After All
A couple of months ago, I wrote about the fact that, despite my prediction that Microsoft's OOXML standards push would go down to defeat, it appeared to have been approved by ISO.

I hung my head in shame, but sagely noted that perhaps Microsoft would find their OOXML effort a Pyrrhic victory, achieved as it was by a combination of menace and unseemly influence. If you're wrong, put a good face on it, is my motto.

Since then four countries have filed protests regarding OOXML: South Africa, Brazil, India, and Denmark. These countries cite various process failures and irregularities; the protests automatically stay final approval of the standard. So Microsoft's victory wasn't Pyrrhic, it was in fact, not a victory, at least not yet.

But the really interesting news then came from Microsoft: It announced that it was going to support ODF in the current Office product (which, by the way, hasn't set the market on fire), but wouldn't support its own standard until a future release of Office. Apparently, the OOXML support in the current product is incompatible with the standard!

Microsoft has put a brave face on this unlikely turn of events, stating that they're doing it to support customer choice of formats, etc., etc. And that when they do support the OOXML standard, it'll be great, no really.

I think they're just taking my advice and putting a brave face on it. (For a good discussion on this, see Andy Updegrove's blog on the recent maneuvering; it's very informative about an increasingly amusing situation.)

What should we take away from this?

"Since then four countries have filed protests regarding OOXML: South Africa, Brazil, India, and Denmark. These countries cite various process failures and irregularities; the protests automatically stay final approval of the standard. So Microsoft's victory wasn't Pyrrhic, it was in fact, not a victory, at least not yet..."

One, the sovereignty issues I noted in the earlier newsletter have certainly played out. Three of the four protesting countries are developing nations. Even though their protests center on procedural issues, one can speculate that underlying the protests is a resentment of having to kowtow to a foreign company; this resentment was undoubtedly exacerbated by the roughshod manner Microsoft used to manage the OOXML process.

The fourth protesting nation is a developed country, and perhaps less aroused by sovereignty issues; however, Scandinavian countries are known for supporting transparent governance, and therefore Denmark has probably recoiled at the procedural irregularities that have occurred.

Sovereignty is a coming issue and we'll hear much, much more about it over the next couple of years. The European Union has taken to regular thumpings of Microsoft, figuring it can't hurt, and feels so good (to the EU). Developing nations also are unhappy with Microsoft, and have cost issues as well, so they'll be looking at open source going forward.

The second thing to take away is Microsoft's increasingly feeble responses in a world that is far more threatening, business-wise, than any time in the past twenty years.

The way Microsoft has handled this whole document format debacle is a real dog's breakfast. Only a panicky company would refuse to support an international standard, seeing it as a monopoly-breaking threat. Only a frantic, clueless company with tons of money to shovel at problems would conclude that the way to respond to the world lining up behind a standard is to push another standard - and argue that customers are better served by multiple standards. I don't know how one could even make a statement like that with a straight face. And then to walk away from the entire frantic exercise with a glib statement thrown back over the shoulder. Incredible.

Another example of these feeble responses is the ongoing trainwreck that is Windows. Vista has officially laid a gigantic egg, so much that a funny new definition - vistaster - has been coined to describe this mess. Not only isn't there any useful functionality in the product - meaning, no earthly reason to adopt it - it's a resource pig, too. In the past, the resource issue wasn't a problem; customers were only too happy to buy new hardware because each release of Windows was enough better to warrant hardware investment. But not Vista.

Now Microsoft is reduced to saying that customers should move to Vista because it's a stepping stone to the next release of Windows - and this one will be really, really useful.

"...the last thing I want to do is put my greasy fingers on a screen too large to clean by rubbing it on my sleeve."

Microsoft showed off a preview of this new version with a demo of its touch screen - just like the iPhone! -- ignoring the fact that the last thing I want to do is put my greasy fingers on a screen too large to clean by rubbing it on my sleeve. One financial analyst headlined his discussion of the Windows riot thusly: "Microsoft: Officially Out of Ideas." And you think I'm cruel!

So, you're a monopolist with two cash cow franchises, each of which seems to have lost its way. Your online business is the opposite of a cash cow, your vision for cloud computing is confusing and fatally flawed by an (inevitable) attempt to shore up existing franchise offerings - let's face, you're a mess.

So what do you do? Try and buy Yahoo! And that ends up a mess, too. I must say, I have a little sympathy for Microsoft in this situation. Clearly the appropriate thing to do, once spurned, would have been to launch a hostile bid (hey, it's worked for Larry Ellison!), but that's not Microsoft's way. Once Yahoo rejected the offer, Microsoft was forced to try and back off, saving face. However, just like Hillary Clinton, they had no Plan B.

But that's all Monday morning quarterbacking about how they handled the offer. The bigger issue is why they wanted to buy Yahoo in the first place. Yahoo seems like a ship without a rudder with a captain who wouldn't know where to steer the ship even if it did have one. Microsoft and Yahoo merging would be like two ugly people getting married; you might smile at their intentions, but you know the baby's going to be grotesque looking!

And the worse part is, it doesn't have to be like this. Adobe is in much the same boat as Microsoft - owning a software category and reaping monopoly margins from it - but facing the potential of having its market undermined by online entrants. Instead of pursuing the same kind of ham-fisted initiatives that Microsoft has, Adobe has put entry-level versions of its products online, figuring, correctly, that if their products are going to be undermined, better it be by Adobe products than someone else's.

Adobe has just released a very innovative free online offering with a word processor, screen sharing capability, acrobat file conversion, file sharing, and online storage - with a strong likelihood of a for-fee commercial-grade offering in the future. I think there's real potential in the offering, and Adobe has a chance to leverage its ubiquitous image, photo, and document tools into a strong business offering. Surely this is more pleasant - and probably more successful - than trying to force-feed mediocre products to unwilling customers?



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