David DeJean

Microsoft wins this OOXML battle, but loses the war

By David DeJean
April 03, 2008 4:23 PM EDT
You'd think that sooner or later even Microsoft would learn there's a right way and a wrong way to do things. But whenever it has a choice it persists in choosing the wrong way. There are lots of smart people who work there. Didn't even one of them think bribery and corruption possibly weren't the best way to get the OOXML document format declared an international standard?

This week's vote within the International Standards Organization (ISO) approving the adoption of Microsoft's format as a "open" standard is basically a travesty that has surely harmed Microsoft all out of proportion to the sales of Office it may make possible.

Reports from around the world in the months since Microsoft lost the first round of fast-track voting have painted a picture of absolute disregard for the ISO process, unethical behavior and possible criminal activity of exactly the kind that has gotten the company into so much trouble with European Union anti-trust regulators in the past.

There is a two-month period for appeals before the ISO pronounces OOXML a standard, and it's already obvious that there will be some. Members of the Norwegian national standards committee, for instance, have already petitioned the government to investigate how the country came to register a "yes" vote on the draft standard when a majority of committee members were against it.

I wrote a while ago about the disruption of the national process in Great Britain, and an appeal is promised there, as well. And I'm sure the list will grow: The New York Times this week also numbered Malaysia and Germany among countries where protests are rising.

I'm sitting here wondering, what has Microsoft won? Not much, as far as I can tell.

Its OOXML victory – if it turns out to be one after the appeals are heard – will certainly be won at the cost of huge damage to its credibility. Evidently, even while Microsoft was promising interoperability and openness it was actively subverting the primary interoperability vehicle of the international computing community: the standards-setting process.

So much for interoperability.

And lost in the haze of battle, of course, is the idea that the ISO sets technical standards. After the first round of voting went against Microsoft last year there were more than 3,000 comments on technical issues filed with the ISO. These were boiled down to some 1,000 questions for the Ballot Resolution Meeting held in February, but few were addressed. Microsoft's response was pretty much, "Hey, it's our standard, and we'll tell you what the details are if we think you need to know."

Even if Microsoft has managed to buy enough votes to get OOXML approved, and bullies enough of the protestors into silence to make it stick, it still hasn't created a standard. At most it's created the very real possibility that it will be back in front of Neelie Kroes, the EU's commissioner for competition, shelling out another billion euros in fines.

In 1998, when Microsoft escaped the U.S. government's anti-trust suit by the skin of its teeth, it was so shaken by the experience that it set out to remake itself, according to "Microsoft Rebooted," a book written by long-time Time Magazine reporter Robert Slater, published in 2004. Bill Gates stepped aside as chief executive in favor of Steve Ballmer, who was given the job of remaking the company's corporate culture, Slater argued. He wrote:


Although the rebooting of Microsoft was about a number of things, it was especially about being more open and being more respectful of others in the outside world; and it was about communicating what the company was doing in a way that others would understand and appreciate.

A decade on, the company seems to be moving away from that goal rather than towards it.