Will the Era of File Format Lock-In Ever End?

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 18, 2009

Because Microsoft Windows is on more than 90 percent of business desktops, many people who criticize the company for anti-competitive practices focus on Windows. The operating system, for example, has steadily bundled various types of tools over the years, leading to the demise of several companies that offered the same tools on a standalone basis. It's worth remembering, though, that the Office applications are a huge part of Microsoft's business, and they, too, are on more than 90 percent of business desktops.

While it's well-known that Microsoft was and is fiercely protective of proprietary aspects of applications such as Word, Excel and Visio, Boycott Novell has been running one of the more revealing series of posts on this topic that I've seen. The series focuses on the Comes vs. Microsoft class-action lawsuit, which sought more than $330 million, alleging anti-competitive practices from the software giant. In particular, it's striking to read some of the messages in this e-mail thread (PDF) regarding Microsoft's openness in the area of file formats for its Office applications.

One of the e-mails that Boycott Novell has posted reads as follows:

"We’ve recently change the policy for distributing our file formats, at the request of BillG. We used to be fairly lax about giving it out to pretty much everyone who asked for it (Excel even published a book through MS Press)."
"Our new policy (for Office2000) is that there are restrictions on use (can’t build converters, can’t be a competitor to any of the apps, etc). We required a signed license agreement in hand before we’ll send them the docs. They have to tell us who they are and what their company does, as well as their intended use."

Could these policies possibly be any less in the spirit of openness and open source? "Can't be a competitor to any of the apps?" I've seen proponents of the OpenOffice.org suite of applications suggest many reasons why OpenOffice gets adopted by only a minority of business users, but file format incompatibility is one of the hugest reasons. Business users exchanging documents simply will not tolerate instances of incompatibility when it comes to word processing and spreadsheet files that fly around all day long.

Why is it that only The European Commission seems to be taking a really tough stance against these types of file format lock-in practices? As we reported here, last year European Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes took a very tough stance in calling for governments throughout Europe to use open source software and adopt open standards. This move was welcomed by The ODF Alliance, which issued this statement specifically about open file formats:

"The OpenDocument Format, with its status as the only internationally recognized open standard document format with a wide range of supporting applications, is a critical tool for governments to help end the era of lock-in."

The U.S. government should be more of a leader in this area, and perhaps the newly formed Open Source for America initiative can help. Andy Updegrove, who is on the Board of Advisors for the inititiative, has a good post on many open standards recommendations for the U.S. government here.

If the majority of software users could share open file format standards, that would be such a tremendously positive development. The effort to make it happen has to start somewhere, and it would be good to see more governments around the world focusing on this issue.