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Community: It's The File Format Stupid!

Oct 06, 2004, 00:15 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Gary Edwards)

[ Thanks to Gary Edwards for this article. ]

It's not about the player. It's not even about the operating system. It's about an open file format for digital media.

The headlines blare, "Microsoft Fears 'Irreparable Harm,' Changes Licensing Tune," "European judge questions moves against Microsoft," and "Microsoft Asks Judge to Suspend Penalties." The issue at hand is that once again Microsoft sits in the antitrust docket, this time appealing to EU Court President Bo Vesterdorf to freeze an order issued by the EU Commission.

After years of pondering antitrust issues, (and waiting to see if the US had the political will power to enforce the rule of law), the EU Commission has ordered Microsoft to make available its protocols, methods, and interfaces to rivals. Hoping against hope that with access to this information, competitor work group servers would be on a level playing field when it comes to communicating with Microsoft desktop computers. They also ordered Microsoft to provide an alternative stripped down version of Windows that would not include the Windows Media Player.

All of last Thursday's hearing was devoted to questions about the licensing of the server protocols. On Friday the EU Court heard arguments over the Commission's order that Microsoft sell a version of its Windows operating system without Media Player audio-visual software to computer makers.

So here we sit. After years of antitrust hearings, sanctions, agreements, and settlements, still unable to deal with the core of the monopolists business plan. A plot of world domination based on iron fisted control of the operating system, the API (Application Program Interface), and critical file formats.

In the lingo of the Sherman Antitrust Act, as Windows approaches "ubiquity" in the marketplace, the operating system becomes a common carrier for computational applications. The iron fist tightens as these applications are hostage to the API, locking in control of the users information processes. The grip becomes ruthlessly unshakable as the computational consumers information is itself locked into the file formats. And the costly cycle of permission based computing is complete. Ownership of information and the information process completely subverted to the permissive whims of the monopolist. An iron fist of profitable extortion fury if ever there was.

Friday's court room action breaks down into a simple summary: Bo Vesterdorf, president of the European Union's Court of First Instance, questioned whether the remedy ordered by the EU Commission of antitrust regulators would work to restore competition or confuse consumers and possibly hurt other firms. Per Hellstrom, an attorney for the EU Commission, argued that the remedy must be put into effect immediately to prevent the same kind of irreversible damage suffered by Netscape during the famed browser wars. Hellstrom argued that it will take years for the appeals process to run it's course, and by that time Microsoft's proprietary digital media file formats will have become the defacto standard. Microsoft argued that the two Windows remedy, one robust, the other lame, will cause irreparable damage to their business and totally confuse the consumer marketplace.

At stake is the fact that by bolting the Windows Media Player to Windows, the ubiquity of the operating system guarantees the ubiquity of the player, which guarantees the ubiquity of the proprietary Windows Media Audio and Video file formats.

The exchange between judges Vesterdorf and Hellstrom indicates that they know full well the real problem is below the player application, at the digital media file format level. Sadly, though, the EU fell for the RealPlayer solution. Do they really think that Microsoft is going to sell a gutted version of Windows that works for RealPlayer but doesn't also punish the consumer in every other way imaginable? What lunacy. We're talking about a company that was willing to cancel the entire Windows distribution contract with then largest computer provider in the world, Compact, if they pre loaded Netscape on a single machine. Customers be damned.

The problem is that proposed solution targets the media player while failing to address the real problem of digital media formats. On paper that might work for Real. They don't seem to anxious to suggest the open file format route. But since Microsoft will make sure the lame Windows punishes consumers, we'll probably never know for sure. A better solution would be to demand that both Microsoft and Real (Player) support an open file format of comparable quality. Such as the open source/open standard OGG Vorbis (ogg).

"Vesterdorf asked how the Commission would react if all of the major players in the field got together and agreed on industry-wide standards for audiovisual software.

"I have dreamed about that, about an open standard," replied Hellstrom.

"But you oppose an industry standard because it is brought about by the largest company on the market?" asked Vesterdorf."

No doubt Vesterdorf recognizes the importance of industry standards. What he doesn't seem to understand is that an industry standard entirely in the hands of a ruthless monopolist is going to cost everyone.

What he doesn't seem to understand is that an open industry standard lies in wait. Of course, it doesn't help that the EU Commission proposed such a lame solution as a crippled Windows, failing to address the most important issue of a open file formats that no proprietary vendor controls. We can blame Real for that.

The interesting point here is that if an open source project has worked up an open file format of comparable quality and usefulness, and there is an openly shared intellectual property license in place (the GPL), the only thing stopping that file format from becoming a de facto standard is the decision by an inordinately large and influential user group to endorse the file formats implementation as their standard. I'm also sure that if the EU requested OGG Vorbis to submit the ogg format to ISO, it would be done in a heart beat.

It's surprising that this hasn't already happened. The EU recently requested the OASIS Open Office XML file format TC to submit their specification to ISO. The action was based on the lengthy "Valoris" report which went to the heart of the importance of open standards, open XML technologies, and open file formats. Arguments that can be applied in their entirety to the digital file formats issue.

Even though the OASIS TC will continue to maintain the file format specification, the EU considers ISO to be the most widely recognized and accepted global clearing house for international standards. So be it. It took less than a week for the OASIS TC to draw up the ISO submission road map, strap on XForms and SMiL specifications, get approval from OASIS, and cross check the effort with ISO.

The EU is going to get exactly the open standard file formats they want, and get them in spades.

The thing is that when it comes to compound document file formats, the EU is willing and able to demand compliance with open standards. Why not do the same with digital file formats? And this doesn't have to be a great imposition to either Microsoft or Real. All that's happens is that there is level playing field, a threshold all competitors have to meet. From there they can innovate to their hearts content.

It's entirely up to Microsoft and Real if they want to enable their applications to comply and provide users with access. Nothing is being taken away from Microsoft. It's up to them whether they want to enable a choice between file formats. Instead of demanding Microsoft provide two versions of Windows, why not toss the file format decision back to Microsoft? Put a price on non compliance with open standards, and let the marketplace do it's thing. The EU need only implement an open standards tariff. Every Windows, Mac OSX, or Linux system sold in Europe would have one very high tariff rate (tax) if they included applications non compliant with specified open file formats. And a low tariff if included applications that were compliant. Bingo, presto, magico--a level playing field. Furthermore, let the users regulate the vendors.

If Microsoft is found to be distributing applications that render or write a crippled version of an open file format, collect the back taxes with triple damages, and legally enable users to seek rapid reimbursement with triple damages.

For the EU to pull this off what really matters is two things. The first is that quality alternative open file formats exists. The second is that there is an open source, freely available application that users can engage in the event that the emperors of powerful digital kingdoms decide not to play. OpenOffice.org, OGG, and Foobar meet the application side of this trust busting equation, but they represent just the tip of the open source iceberg. The moment the EU stamps any open source file format as their standard, open source innovation above the file format, at the application and network services layers, will explode. It's the equivalent of throwing open the gates.

With the OASIS Open Office XML file formats, it's a simple matter of mounting an XSLT transformation, making it easy for the MS Office users to create, transform and exchange information in the open document format. Could it really be that hard for digital emperors with vast resources to mount open digital media file format capabilities?

One has to wonder why the EU left hand has no idea what the EU right hand is doing? If this works for the EU regarding document file formats, why wouldn't they apply the same kind of thinking to the multi media problem? Earth to Hellstrom: Forget the player application. Focus on an open file format.

At the end of the day the world has two choices on how to deal with Microsoft. Either separate the Windows operating system from MS applications, developer tools, and business services, as stipulated in the Jackson Doctrine (or what Redmond calls the "death penalty"). Or, entirely open source and open standards mark the Windows API, the technical specifications, and all MS application file formats. A massively messy idea, but one aimed at enabling other operating systems to run the same applications and engage the same messaging and communications services as Windows.

And then of course there is always the outside possibility that some trust-busting government will see the light and mandate that Microsoft must provide the open source WINE Project with the entire Windows API. Quit messing around and level that playing field! The test for compliance being the ability of WINE to run any and all Windows applications. If an application fails, it becomes incumbent on Microsoft to send WINE the proper information, and pay for the cost of configuration plus triple penalty. How about this: any Windows application sold in Europe that doesn't run on WINE, and also meet the open file format requirements, is cause for the triggering of draconian tariffs.

We all know that somehow the playing field has to be leveled. This third way of trying to regulate the recidivist's behavior wouldn't work even if they put ankle bracelets on the entire Redmond workforce.

Playing patty cake with a reprobate just isn't going to do it.

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