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Editor's Note: Foolish Uncertainty and Doubt

Jul 14, 2006, 23:30 (6 Talkback[s])

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I was gone last week, completely disconnected the Internet. Did I miss anything?

Okay, so there was the whole Microsoft capitulation to OpenDocument thing. When I first caught the news, I thought, well, it's about time. Good for Massachusetts, Belgium, and all the other governments for standing up to the Redmond bully, right?

Then I thought "uh oh."

Because back in the old times, when Microsoft decided to pay attention to the strange new thing-y called the Internet, a lot of people thought, hey, that would be a nifty thing. After all, dialing up to download pictures of Elvis shaking hands with President Nixon was a very exciting prospect. Mosaic is a pretty good browser, and it would be great if Microsoft supported it better, right?

Oh, did we learn. Netscape especially learned a very hard lesson and it is only now that it's descendant Mozilla is making a dent in Microsoft's browser share after very nearly being killed off by Microsoft's "embrace and extend" tactic. We're all still suffering from IE-biased Web pages.

So, faced with this history lesson, I can only wonder how Microsoft's "generous" offer of tying their Open XML format to the OpenDocument format standard is going to play out. They already made it clear that this acceptance of the ODF is rather beneath them, since they regard their Open XML format as better.

"While the Open XML formats provide unique and unparalleled value, we know that there are certain government organizations that have constituents, particularly in the OSS [open source software] community, who are concerned about assuring interoperability with Office," a Microsoft spokesperson said in an interview with fellow JupiterWeb site internetnews.com.

Wow, how condescending of them. We're so lucky that they deigned to help us.

This may very well be a setback for Microsoft, and a positive step for the continued adoption of the ODF. But I cannot shake the feeling that sooner or later, there will be a big push by Microsoft along the lines of this: sure, you can use ODF for your documents, but the translator module is so much slower, so limited (never mind that it's Microsoft's translator that functioning so poorly). Why use the ODF, when our Open XML format is so much faster and robust?

The bad thing is, that continued adoption of ODF by Microsoft Office users will play right into this plan. They will wait for a while, until more users try ODF and find that for some strange reason, they don't like it very much. Not realizing that it's the application and not the format that's the problem, ODF will be stigmatized by "poor performance."

If this sounds familiar, it's pretty much the pattern that Microsoft used to try to kill off Netscape. Except in those days, Netscape was the market leader, unlike OpenOffice.org. It still worked. Those IE-optimized Web pages were perfect excuses to point at "flaws" in Netscape's browser. Forget that it was Microsoft that deviated from existing HTML standards in the first place with their enhanced Web page code.

The key to breaking this cycle is the continued education that formats are separate from the software that runs them. The user and IT buyers must be reminded that a format, particularly a standard like ODF is not different than a music CD you buy at the store. If you have a CD player that consistently sounds bad, it's not the CDs you're playing, which is what Microsoft wants you to believe. It's the CD player.

Any other argument is specious and foolish, but it is likely going to be the foolish arguments we are going to hear from Redmond about ODF in the near term.

Hm. A new F -word for FUD. I've kind of like it.