Microsoft's Interop Chief: People Should Choose Their Own Standards
In an interview with BetaNews earlier this week, Microsoft General Manager for Interoperability and Standards Tom Robertson volunteered to present his company's present stance on the perennially controversial topic of interoperability, and the degree to which it can be reasonably achieved without giving away trade secrets.
While discussion continues among members of the International Standards Organization over whether to ratify ECMA's recommendation that Microsoft's Office Open XML format be adopted as an international standard, Robertson told us in response to a question about who truly determines standards, that Microsoft believes people make the final decision - not companies, not countries, and perhaps not really agencies.
The controversy over whether the prevalence of Microsoft Office in the workplace locks customers into the company's proprietary format and precludes their ability to choose alternatives, first heated up in September 2005.
At that time, the State of Massachusetts issued a kind of unofficial proclamation that was nonetheless heard loud and clear: "The Commonwealth defines open formats as specifications for data file formats that are based on an underlying open standard, developed by an open community, affirmed and maintained by a standards body, and are fully documented and publicly available."
The Commonwealth made that statement by way of voicing its support for OpenDocument Format (ODF) as its choice for systems to be used by its employees. Since that time, California has added its voice to the debate, treating the Massachusetts statement as a kind of state worker's information bill of rights.
So Microsoft took the surprising tack of trying to demonstrate its OOXML format met all four of the Commonwealth's stated criteria, thus far with some success in California. The loss of individual states as customers may not make a serious dent in Microsoft's revenues from Office licenses, though the symbology of these real and potential losses was treated seriously, as though it would resonate among future customers...and among European judges and commissioners who are still deciding the fate of Microsoft's business there.
Tom Robertson came to us with a message about Microsoft's approach to achieving interoperability, the four-pillar structure of which is almost certainly not coincidental. As he explained to us at length, his company adopts any or all of four internal toolsets - methodologies for approaching the general goal of interoperability, some toolsets to more varying degrees than others.
First is the notion that software should be designed to interoperate with other software "out of the box," which Robertson says is a principle that the company took to heart with the development of Windows Vista.
"I would say that standards need to be determined by the market - that at the end of the day, people should have the ability to choose the technology that best meets their needs."
Tom Robertson, General Manager for Interoperability and Standards, Microsoft
Second is a movement toward favoring collaboration over proprietary production. One example of this, Robertson cited, is the creation of the Interop Vendor Alliance, an organization whose stated purpose is to achieve intercommunication between different segments of the software industry, though which is clearly centered around Microsoft as the center of that discussion. Covenant agreements such as the ones between his company and Novell and Xandros also qualify (Microsoft had yet to announce a similar deal with Linspire).
Third is a concept which the company calls "Access to Technology," and which encompasses its IP licensing programs - some of which were brought about at the urging of the European Commission.
Commercial licenses give corporations and individuals access to Microsoft's proprietary technology, while more community-driven programs identify certain areas where the company is more willing to share ideas with developers and open source groups.
The concept also encompasses the company's Open Specification Promise, which is a unilateral statement pledging that it will refrain from suing individuals and companies for the non-infringing use of those patented technologies it makes openly available, so long as those parties pledge in turn never to take legal action against Microsoft.
The fourth "toolset" in Microsoft's internal kit is the promotion of standards, which was ratcheted up a few notches this afternoon with Robertson's and partner Jean Paoli's publication today of an open letter supporting ODF's and OOXML's co-existence as international standards, so long as ODF proponents pledge to abide by the principle of offering choice to consumers.
It was a long and detailed preamble, which you've just seen summarized here. We pick up on our interview with Tom Robertson at the point where we started discussing the efficacy of the standards process in enabling Microsoft to achieve its goals, after the jump:
Next: "I do wonder whether standardization is the most appropriate way..."