Saturday, January 24, 2004

Microsoft protects "open" Office file formats

Microsoft seeks XML-related patents | CNET
Microsoft has applied for patents that could prevent competing applications from processing documents created with the latest version of the software giant's Office program.

In a complex universe, it is good to have a few reliable certainties.

Microsoft's fortune and power has been based on three things:

1. Control of the trade press in the 1980s and 1990s and of government in the 2000s.
2. Using their operating system control to eliminate competitor applications and turn Office into a revenue stream.
3. Leveraging widespread piracy to ensure their file formats became universal "standards", without making them truly open.

Even before the Bush administration delivered on their promises to end the US vs. Microsoft antitrust legislation, the proposed measures would have failed. Despite pleas from a very few people (ie. me) they never considered removing file format control from Microsoft. That single action was fundamental to restricting Microsoft's practices and improving the quality and creativity of productivity software, but it was almost universally overlooked.

When Microsoft switched to XML for its .NET file formats, a few naive individuals thought they were "opening" their file formats. I was certain they would not do this -- not while there was a ghost of a chance that a desktop Linux was goint to emerge. I didn't know how they were going to keep their formats closed however. I'm not as smart as Microsoft -- patents are the obvious answer.

Did Microsoft plan to appear "open" with their XML file formats (and thereby reduce some antitrust pressure -- though by then the game was over) for a time, even though that was never their intent? I don't know, but they are definitely smarter than I am. I wouldn't put it past them.

Oh well, the Bush administration suggests that we're not really able to sustain a healthy long-term democracy in an age of uncertainty. Maybe we need to follow the Singaporean route, and usher in the Monarchs of Microsoft.

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