Is Microsoft's XML Format About Openness or Control?

Posted by tadelste on Dec 28, 2005 9:33 PM
LXer; By DC Parris

  LXer Feature: 28-Dec-05

Is Microsoft's fight over XML document formats really about Microsoft becoming more "open"? Or is Microsoft really trying to control users? How will you respond?

Richard Stallman is right. Proprietary software is ultimately about dividing and controlling users. As if there were no other evidence of this, Microsoft's stance on XML document formats is plain enough. If the light in your head hasn't come on yet, I suggest you go get a new bulb. Think about it. If Microsoft were genuinely interested in interoperability, they would have happily joined the OpenDocument TC at OASIS, and helped to define the format.



After all, that is exactly what they were invited to do. OpenDocument was developed as a multi-vendor standard that Microsoft had the opportunity to influence. They had the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that they are genuinely concerned about the interoperability that open standards offer. In fact, they still have that opportunity. Instead, they are choosing to submit as a standard a partial implementation of XML standards that outright ignores SVG and XForms support in favor of their own proprietary technologies aimed at solving the same problem. And they have the nerve to criticize ODF as if a single competitor developed it and submitted it to OASIS for auto-approval.



They are also tying their XML format to these proprietary technologies - a move that others have already suggested will destroy the interoperability that people should gain from using XML technologies. It is difficult to suggest that Microsoft simply doesn't "get it". No, they get it all right. They have the best and brightest (ahem!) programmers in the world. Technology is their business. How could they not get it? Their actions can only be understood as an intentional effort to control their customers. So how do they control their users? I'm so glad you asked.



Suppose I run a business that has bought into the Microsoft line about ODF not being focused on my needs and experiences. I have chosen the MSXML format, along with InfoPath, Winforms, and Sparkle. Never mind that Winforms could be made obsolete by XAML before long. I've just chosen the Microsoft platform because "no one ever got fired" for choosing them. Thus, if you plan to do business with me as a vendor, I'll expect you to conform to my needs and requirements. If you're not using the Microsoft platform, I'll be less likely to do business with you because you can't guarantee interoperability with me.



Never mind that my decision has hurt my ability to choose any vendor I want, regardless of that vendor's technology platform. Never mind that my decision has locked me out of doing business easily with other companies that may use different platforms and technologies. You and I won't be doing business because the only way we can be interoperable is by using the same software. MSXML will allow us to be more interoperable than in the past. However, now I will expect you to support MSXML, Winforms and InfoPath and you'll expect me to support ODF and XForms.



The fact is that Microsoft doesn't like I do business with someone who isn't also a Microsoft customer. Their whole idea of interoperability is you have a copy of Windows 98 and I have a copy of Windows XP. So they'll try to make them interoperable - and then only to a degree. So, as long as I use Windows, and you use GNU/Linux or Mac or Solaris - whatever platform you use - you'll be looking at me, and I'll be looking at you. We'll just be looking at each other without ever really communicating on any meaningful level. We're divided, just as Stallman has pointed out from the beginning.



We are also divided against each other to a certain degree. Because I chose to agree to the almighty EULA, I have now officially agreed to not help you where software is concerned. So, I not only expect you to use software that conforms to my requirements, I further refuse to let you use my copies, thus forcing you to expend your own resources to acquire the software. Now, had I standardized on OpenDocument, I could point you in the direction of OpenOffice.org, an ODF-compliant application. But I cannot do that because I chose a standard that ties into proprietary tools, and my documents make extensive use of these tools, thus rendering any interoperability null and void.



We could unify. One of us can migrate to the other's platform. The problem with this is that there are too many businesses using different platforms, which means we'd be playing musical platforms, depending upon who our current customers and vendors are. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't think that would sit well with the CEO's, CIO's or the CFO's in anyone's business. In fact, I think the technicians and admins would revolt. I won't even mention the poor users. I think we can safely rule out musical platforms.



Interoperability between platforms, stacks and frameworks seems to be in everyone's best interests. You can use what you want, and I can use what I want. And we can still do business, regardless of what each of us chooses to use. And while the open Internet and open XML technologies provide the means to accomplish that, these things also represent, for Microsoft (and surely other proprietary vendors), a loss of control. Up until now, many people have been buying (or violating EULAs) Microsoft Windows and Office because that's what everyone else uses, and it's the best way to assure compatibility.



This is Microsoft's calling card. Get you hooked using their software, get you to convince others to use their software to be compatible with you, jack up prices, tighten control on who uses the software, try to kill any technology they haven't developed, and now you're afraid to even think about migrating away. "It will cost too much." "I'll lose compatibility." "I don't know that other software - won't I have to spend a bajillion dollars in training?" Do I see that light in your head starting to glimmer now? As a kid, I used to live in fear. As long as I did, I was controllable by others. They did what they wanted.



And Microsoft wants me to choose their platform, and then demand that you use it, too, so we can enjoy compatibility and "interoperability". At the very least, I am supposed to gloat over your lack of the "latest and greatest" from Redmond, thus shaming you into buying their software. Isn't that what Internet Explorer and MSHTML was all about? Of course it was. We discovered our Netscape browsers didn't seem to work on some websites, whereas Internet Explorer did. So we thought that MSIE was better than Netscape. And, with greater than 90% of the browser market, web developers began incorporating MSHTML and ActiveX into their sites, further alienating users of other browsers. And this is considered acceptable behavior.



They want to control whether, when and how we use their software. They want to control you and me. They want us to love their software whether we love it or not. Think 1984 here. Once we're all using the same platform, they'll be able to control us better. I know they have promised not to spy on users. They also promised not to use the technology of their business partners, a number of whom have turned around and sued them for violating copyrights and patents. One would assume those "partnerships" fell apart on the lack of trust.



What I didn't understand as a child was that I had power. I had a choice. A little courage would have brought that control to an abrupt end. It might have been a painful ending, but it would have ended. A few years back, after a 6-year stint in the US Marine Corp Infantry, someone threatened to "bust a cap" in my chest (to shoot me, if you don't understand "bust a cap") while I was waiting at a bus stop. Given my childhood experience, I had nothing to fear. Instead of my old habit of running, I wound up shaking hands with the guy. No one else bothered me after that, either.



Today, we the users - the customers - have power. If you are a Microsoft customer, you have power. Even if you are not a Microsoft customer, you have power. We might have to sacrifice something, or suffer a little pain. But we can and should exercise our power to influence the outcome of the standards battle. If you really care about compatibility and interoperability and freedom of choice, then it's not a matter of whether, but how soon you act. If you really care about being able to trust your vendor, it's not a matter of fear, but of power - and the power is yours. If you really care about who is in control, then you know it's time to take back control.



No, I'm not just whistling Dixie. I have reported elsewhere that I have already taken back control of my computers - over a year ago now. I no longer even use the proprietary NVidia drivers. I use and support libre software and open standards. I buy from Novell because I want to encourage Novell to develop more libre software. I won't buy hardware that I know won't support my OS platform. I even bought an audio player in part because the manufacturer advertised it works with GNU/Linux. In the process, Microsoft and the hardware manufacturers should be getting the crystal clear message that I refuse to allow them to control me and those with whom I do business.



If you want to support Microsoft's XML format, that is your choice. But you need to be sure that you're not supporting it because you feel you have no choice.

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