Next version of MSFT office to support open document format

The times they are changing for MSFT. A recent announcement that the next version of the Office suite will support new open source formats may be the most revealing example.

Interoperability is a complex strategic game but can be summarized this way: interop always helps the smaller competitors against a large established player. This is a standard consequence of network effects. Before Word had significant market share and was the small, scrappy upstart trying to gain a beachhead position against Word Perfect, it was imperative to read and write WP documents. This allowed customers to switch to Word but still continue to interoperate with the majority of people still using the more ubiquitous application. The developers for Word Perfect, on the other hand, have no incentive to help accelerate this switch, so their application would not recognize the new format. Here is a divergence from the golden rule of getting along in a network world: “be conservative in what you send out and generous in what you accept.” If interoperability were the only objective, every application would be able to open documents published by any other formats while itself using a very well narrowly-scoped that would be easy for these other applications to understand.

The same pressure applied to Excel when it was competing for market share against Lotus Notes. As MSFT Office became the de facto standard in the enterprise and eventually for consumers, this pressure gradually eased even though the import/export capability for the “legacy” formats remained. At some point the scales tipped and the burden shifts to the competing applications with smaller market share to work with the leading formats.

Open source software follows the same path: it was imperative for Open Office to be able to accept Word documents, as well as save new documents in Word format. This mean that every new release of Office required catch-up effort from the community to add necessary interop functionality. (It did not help that the office formats were largely undocumented and had to be reverse engineered until the XML based Open Office XML specification, which itself fueled another line of controversy during its push for standardization.) Same goes for cloud services: it is no coincidence that Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations can be uploaded.

The announcement that MSFT Office will support the new open-source formats is not due to a tipping point in market share. Its current position remains virtually unassailable. Even the Apple commercials that try to mock PC platform as a square, clueless fellow are forced to pay a backhanded complement by emphasizing that the latest generation of Macs can run Office. Is this the sign that demand for interoperability has arrived? Is the golden rule a more compelling option than trying to create lock-in effects by using proprietary formats and breaking changes on every release that force open source alternatives to play catch-up? At least the European Union is not convinced and announced its own intentions to verify this:

“The Commission will investigate whether the announced support of Open Document Format in Office leads to better interoperability and allows consumers to process and exchange their documents with the software product of their choice.”

Between the competition from free Open Office, disruptive Google Apps for the Enterprise, Adobe trying to unify presentation layer with PDF and now additional regulatory scrutiny, it is getting interesting for the future of desktop productivity software.


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