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Community: It’s The File Format Stupid!

[ 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.