Too good to be true?

As reported by The Register, Neowin and (with cynical comments a-plenty) Slashdot, Microsoft are planning on using an XML-based format for its Office documents, the documentation to which they are making available for download. For free. And available to open-source developers:

Q. Can the licenses for the Office 2003 XML Reference Schemas be used by open source developers?

A. Yes. Open source developers who wish to participate in a community development project can enter into the agreements and then work in a collaborative fashion on development of a program or programs.

I’ll admit it, I’m stumped. For a company such as Microsoft, who have for so long based a lot of their policy around vendor lock-in and “decommoditizing protocols” to turn around and open up their file formats seems like such a complete volte-face that it defies belief. I therefore have two questions:

  1. Is there a catch and, if so, what?
  2. Why are they doing this?

Firstly, catch possibilities. The first of these is that an XML-based file format is not a panacea for all things interoperable. By way of demonstration, this is (as far as I can figure out) valid XML:

<?xml version="1.1"?> <!DOCTYPE binarydata [ <!ELEMENT binarydata (#PCDATA)> ]> <binarydata> 01001000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111 </binarydata>

I’ll agree it’s a rather contrived example, but you see my point: XML doth not a good format make.

The next catch possibility is that the schemas appear only to be free in the beer sense: they have some kind of agreement attached to them (which I can’t get to, as they’re in an MSI installer). There is, however, a link to a Danish government website which apparently offers more information (more on that later). An interesting question is whether this license is compatible with the GPL, but I’m not a lawyer so I couldn’t tell you.

The Danish website is perhaps the most interesting connection here: while the site itself isn’t overly comprehensible (with mixed-together English and Danish even in the ‘English’ section) it would seem to suggest that perhaps the Danish government have stood up to Microsoft and said “Open up your formats or you will lose high-value government contracts throughout Europe”. If this is true, it would appear to be good all-round for everyone: good for governments, good for Microsoft, good for the hard-working chaps behind OpenOffice, good for Joe Customer.

I’m afraid I will have to remain sceptical, however, until such a time if and when it all comes together. Will Microsoft become some benevolent force for good in this world? Is this some sneaky trick to undermine the open-source community? Will something come out of Denmark which is even better than those sweet sticky pastry things? Comments please.

2 Responses to “Too good to be true?”

    •  Gravatar for Meri
    • From Meri
    • Friday 3 June 2005 at 18:18

    Maybe they’re just tired of being bitch-slapped by the EU and governments around the world. And since software such as OpenOffice already has the ability to understand Microsoft formats (in fact, OO can read things that OfficeXP can’t! Like Office95 documents…), they’re not really losing much. They’re just making interoperability a little easier, but potentially holding more control (depending on exactly what the free beer agreement looks like). It’s something that doesn’t change the playing field very much, but makes them look and smell a bit better.

    •  Gravatar for Jonty
    • From Jonty
    • Saturday 4 June 2005 at 11:05

    I have to admit I haven’t read the licence, nor any of the stories surrounding this, but my initial impressions are thus: this could be a Good Thing™ (and I’m turning over an unbiassed leaf as of today, so this is a balanced opinion :)).

    The latest version of Office already has XML support to some degree and applications like InfoPath show Microsoft’s intention to exploit XML to it’s potential. As to whether XML makes a good format, I don’t know, but I’d sooner have an unencrypted is messy format than one I cannot read at all. Certainly InfoPath’s XML isn’t particularly human readable, in terms of line breaks, sensible naming conventions and such, but when I imagine a PHP script or the likes parsing uploaded content and such it seems a vast improvement over the previous formats. Yes, binary data for images and the like is a problem, but at least it’s clearly delinated and there really is little other way of saving images, sounds and such in one file without putting the code directly into the XML.

    As to your questions, is there a catch? Probably, but that’s the nature of business. Intellectual property rights are worth astronomical figures and need protection, but it is possible to balance the rights of the creator (Microsoft) with the rights of the user (programmers, Joe Public etc.). At the end of the day if the terms are reasonable Microsoft gain by people using their formats instead of creating their own alternatives, there’s even talk of some form of XML PDF-beater being developed, but I’m unsure as to how exact reproduction of documents is possible in such instances.

    Why are Microsoft doing this? Certainly the increasing pressure Microsoft has been under the world over has made them change their game plan. The EU have already fined Microsoft hundreds of million dollars for anti-trust violations, and even in the US they’re facing hard times. It’s true to say that Governments do have a lot of power, more so than businesses, and can influence Microsoft unlike other competitors (e.g. the ‘Reduced Media Edition’ of Windows in the EU, the value editions of Windows for developing countries where piracy rates are astronomical). I agree it’s a good thing in balancing the playing field.

    I also think it’s in Microsoft’s own interests to use XML and other open, extensible standards. By it’s nature it’s an ideal format for both general computing use and for use on the web. Microsoft already offer a range of their products with versions tailored for web access, so if you can have a file format which is accessible both via ‘normal’ programmes and through simple web applications, it makes their life a lot easier.

    So, on balance, I think this a good move, whatever the reasoning and specifics. It’s easy to criticise Microsoft, and most of the time it’s at least partly justified, but sometimes they do makes moves which can benefit the industry. Here’s hoping it all works out for the best :)