Why the Office Format Wars are Not Over

by Glyn Moody

Gone are the days when free software could blithely ignore what was happening in the world of proprietary code. The two approaches are now inextricably intertwined as more and more users and companies choose to run both. One paradoxical consequence of this is that as free software becomes more widely deployed, Microsoft's impact on it becomes greater. Against this background, a recent shift in Microsoft's public statements about open source assumes a particular importance.

Although you still come across the odd veiled threat against open source, the general approach seems now to be more conciliatory. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this new policy of cohabitation is the creation of Microsoft's Open Source Software lab under Bill Hilf, and the CodePlex open source repository.

Another example of the gentler, kinder Microsoft came from Brian Jones in the context of office file formats:

I think at this point we can really move onto more productive and collaborative discussion and admit that we are no longer in any sort of "file format war." If we ever were really in a war, it's now over, and both sides are winners.

At first sight, this statement is good news for the OpenDocument Format (ODF) standard and open source. It suggests that Microsoft is no longer out to crush this upstart that threatens the hegemony of Microsoft Office, one of the main pillars of the company's income, but is content to live and let live. However, statements elsewhere – by none other than Bill Hilf – put a slightly different perspective on things:

Open XML and the OpenDocument Format (ODF) must be allowed to compete in the market, where adoption is not determined by a vendor or standards body, says a Microsoft official.

Bill Hilf, general manager for platform strategy at Microsoft, said the market should decide what the prevailing standard should be in the war between the company's Open XML (extensible markup language) document format and the ODF.

"It's like VHS versus Betamax, where the market selected the one it wanted based on values"

This sheds an interesting light on Jones's statement that “both sides are winners