Kicking the Microsoft Office habit

If Massachusetts switches to open document formats, will the business community follow?

Face it: You're addicted and you can't quit.

When we talk about the Microsoft monopoly, we usually mean Windows. Yet the Office productivity suite enjoys such total market dominance, analysts occasionally ponder whether there are even customers left for Microsoft to win. Mac or PC, you've gotta have it. It's so ubiquitous that whenever an organization of significant size threatens to give it up cold turkey, even Linux users take the news with a grain of salt.

Truly, the world is addicted to Microsoft Office. But beginning January 2007, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts  plans to kick the habit. That's the deadline after which all documents used by Massachusetts state government agencies must be stored in open formats, according to broad technology plans issued by the Commonwealth earlier this month. Currently, approved formats include PDF and OpenDocument, a free, XML-based office document standard used by several alternative office suites.

The move comes in response to long-standing criticism of the native Office file formats. Through the years, Microsoft has repeatedly manipulated the way Office saves documents, making sure customers always need the latest version of the suite to stay compatible. Microsoft argues that it has to do this to add new features, and there's some truth in that; the Office formats were poorly conceived to begin with. But if that's the case, why not start from scratch with a more flexible design?

The answer, of course, is that .doc, .xls, and .ppt are the nicotine that keeps customers coming back to Office, even when competing apps could do the job for less. In the same way that online banking sites built with nonstandard code are enough to keep Web surfers on Internet Explorer, business users won't waver from Office if there's the slightest chance their documents could be garbled.

These practices may keep Microsoft's business customers coming back for more, but to Eric Kriss, secretary of administration and finance of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that's the wrong kind of brand loyalty. If compatibility with Microsoft's proprietary formats is truly that fragile and tenuous a thing then what, he asks, does that say about the prospects of long-term archiving of public documents created with Office? Will those documents still be legible 10 years from now, or 50?

"In the IT business, a long period of time is about 18 months," Kriss told the Massachusetts Software Council in January. "In government it's over 300 years, so we have a slightly different perspective."

Microsoft naturally wasted no time in criticizing the commonwealth's plans, calling them shortsighted and condemning OpenDocument as an inferior file format. Why all the fuss? Even if OpenDocument pales in comparison with the native Office formats, surely it isn't inferior to HTML, RTF (Rich Text Format), and plain old ASCII text as well? Office supports all of those today. Would it be so hard to support OpenDocument tomorrow? After all, it's a free standard.

But that's just it. An open document standard won't help Microsoft lock in its loyal addicts -- excuse me, customers -- so an open standard isn't in Microsoft's business interests. Microsoft refuses to support OpenDocument; it doesn't get more bald-faced than that.

Massachusetts is lucky. It has a mandate from the public and enough influence to make itself heard in Redmond. Short of an intervention, however, weaning your own company away from unstable, proprietary document formats might not be so easy.

The first step is to admit that you have a problem.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.