Thursday, April 3, 2008


Microsoft Office has been one of the company’s two major cash cows over the past decade. While habituation and sales relationships are certainly important, it has been the Office file formats that have created tremendous switching costs and barriers to entry.

So Wednesday’s announcement that IOS has approved Microsoft’s current family of file formats (OOXML) could be a major milestone. Maybe. Possibly. Right now it’s an open question if the actual openness matches the nominal claims.

The decision would be significant if it reduces barriers to entry by rivals, who should now be able to read native Office documents without worry of incompatibility. Such alternatives should benefit (and fuel) reduced switching costs, and perhaps lower prices.

The problem is that a lot of cyberactivists think of open office formats as meaning favoring one particular project/product, That’s not really choice and freedom, it’s just using public (or private) institutions to favor one actor over the other.

The real benefit will be if we see a proliferation of new products (free and commercial) that can read and write OOXML. It may be an ugly format, but open source libraries will make possible for innovators to reuse that commodity technology to create something new and valuable. Such open innovation would either improve the quality of the OOo libraries or perhaps lead to a new, cleaner implementation.

For me, the biggest benefit of an open standard would be the end to file format obsolescence. When I started my PhD career in 1994, I did a number of presentations in Macintosh Power Point 3. Office 98 read these files, but I can’t read them today on my computer using any of the OS X implementations — Office X, 2004 or 2008 (I dont recall whether it works in Office 2001).

So the idea that I can save portions of my life and read them 10, 20 or 30 years later is pretty important, and perhaps an open standard will assure that outcome. Through a combination of openness and market adoption, I know HTML, JPEG and TIFF files will be readable 30 years from now, but the odds seem lower on these semi-open file formats (like PDF and OOXML) that are deliberately revised every few years to sell software updates.

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