IBM Wins Pyrrhic Format Battle Over Microsoft

Last Updated May 12, 2009 7:29 PM EDT

By releasing a new service pack for Office that includes support for the open document format (ODF), Microsoft appears to be complying with European demands that it play well with others, while putting to rest accusations by IBM that it is still trying to maintain a monopoly over document formats. But forgive IBM for failing to cheer an apparent victory in its long-running document format war with Microsoft; IBM is busy attempting to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, probably because it's now run out of excuses for failing to capture significant market share against Word and Excel.

IBM, Sun and Adobe have been frequent plaintiffs at the bar of the European Union's Competition Committee, claiming that Microsoft has abused its dominant position in the market to prevent competitors from selling competing document applications using non-Microsoft formats. The EU has sided with the plaintiffs often enough that Microsoft seems to have capitulated.

Far from being placated, however, IBM has reacted with vitriol through proxies serving on technical committees on standards bodies. Rob Weir, chief ODF architect at IBM, and current chair of the interoperability committee on the OASIS standards body, had what can only be called a hissy fit over apparently minor incompatibilities between spreadsheet formats, accusing Microsoft of deliberately sabotaging the finer points of interoperability with its recent release.
This is a big step backwards. Spreadsheet interoperability is not hard. This is not rocket science. Everyone knows what TODAY() means. Everyone knows what =A1+A2 means. To get this wrong requires more effort than getting it right.
His post received a swift, and possibly even more vitriolic response from Gray Knowlton, Microsoft's product manager for Office and a fellow technical committee member. After noting that Weir had been invited to test the new implementation before it was released, he called for Weir to step down or be replaced as chair of the technical committee:
Rob is unfit as a leader given his inability to separate his personal venom from his role as a leader in driving the standard forward. It seems like a better approach to empower people on the ODF TC who have a long-term view of the need to enable interoperability, and to move those with more short-term vendor-oriented agendas to the side.
Microsoft's acceptance of ODF would thus seem to be a victory for IBM, which makes Weir's petulance puzzling. Government customers in particular have sought alternatives to Microsoft so as not to be in the position of subsidizing a private company (i.e., Microsoft) with public monies, and IBM has long coveted this market as an opening for its own suite of applications. IBM has also been trying to wean customers off Microsoft Office in the hopes of winning them over to its Workplace collaboration tool as an alternative to Microsoft's SharePoint. But according to Sam Hiser, former executive director of the now-defunct Open Document Foundation, Microsoft has successfully called IBM's bluff and forced Big Blue to show its losing hand.

"[IBM's] hand is a dying Lotus Notes and Workplace, which was a disaster. Microsoft, by including ODF in its applications, provides the interoperability everyone was asking for, but now [government customers] don't have to move away from Microsoft applications," he told me.

As I've noted previously, Lotus Notes, Sametime, and Symphony are pieces of a tapestry IBM needs to weave together if it is to have any chance of taking even a significant chunk of Microsoft's market share, let alone vie with it for dominance. David Ferris of Ferris Research noted that challenging economic times could cause customers to consider a free alternative to Microsoft, while Google's success may validate the hosted model. Those factors notwithstanding, he wrote, "we doubt Symphony will suck oxygen out of Microsoft's Office market."

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  • Michael Hickins

    Michael Hickins has written about technology and business for BNET, InformationWeek, InternetNews.com, eWEEK -- where he was executive editor from 2007-2008 -- The Curator, Pseudo.com, Multex Investor, Reuters, and Conde Nast's WWD.com. Hickins is the author of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, a collection of short stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1991. He also published Blomqvist, a picaresque novel set in 11th century Europe, in 2006. Hickins remains passionately interested in the intersections of business, technology, politics and culture, and endures a life-long obsession with baseball. He is married with two children and lives in Manhattan.

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