A Macro Question About Microsoft And Standards - Oh Yeah - And Is Microsoft Really Committed to Open XML?

A colleague of mine, Stuart McKee, sat on a panel recently during a Red Hat event. His comments have drawn some attention, and now some FUD that I really feel needs to be addressed.

First of all, you can see the coverage here, here, here, and here. But the one I most want to comment is this one from ZDNet in the UK.

This really is the case of a tempest in a tea pot that has boiled out into the general discussion. Stuart is a great guy, very bright, and was on a panel that was demanding. Okay, no big deal. However the inaccuracies came about, either through misconstrued comments and/or simply misspeaking on something, they are none-the-less inaccurate.

The first set of stories focused on whether or not MS is still committed to Open XML. It is - it will be - and we have never said anything different from that. Check out Gray Knowlton's blog as he is in the product team, and the group, that is working on this exact issue. We have always advocated choice in the marketplace, and yes - recently we announced that we would support ODF in Office. That does not mean we are stepping away from Open XML in the least. In fact, it is more of a statement of a deeper commitment to XML-based document formats...but that is a discussion for a different day. I'll leave the rest of this discussion to Gray.

The bigger issues come from the ZDNet article. Has Microsoft been working on standards before Open XML? Has the company done work on standards in the past? Will we work on more standards in the future? The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

Every big software producer works on standards as they relate to the products they are producing. There are essentially three scenarios on a given product. First, to implement a standard. Second, to work on a specification that is in process of becoming a standard. Third, to contribute a technology specification to a standards body so that it may become a standard. Microsoft has been doing all three of these across THOUSANDS of standards for decades.

More than eight years ago, a corporate standards organization was formed in the company to help product teams be better participants in standards orgs, to make more strategic decisions about what and where to contribute specifications, and how to deal with the legal issues surrounding standards bodies (there is an entire specialization in the legal field for this kind of work believe it or not).

Currently, the standards organization at Microsoft has more than 25 full-time employees in it and is focused not only on standards, but how the company thinks about interoperability and standards as a whole. What's more, because we are active in more than 150 standards orgs at any one time, and more than 400 overall - we have more than 600 product team and field employees who have been internally certified for standards work (and most of them are active in some committee or other). Our products have supported literally more than 10,000 standards and we have contributed specifications in the areas of development languages, runtimes, networking protocols, systems management, hardware, mobility, document formats, security,...the list goes on.

Anyone close to the industry knows that Sun, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Adobe...any of the big players have people sitting in dozens to hundreds of standards organizations at any time. Companies in the hardware space like Toshiba, Sony, Intel, Samsung, Nokia, Phillips, Siemens...they have even greater standards engagement. There is a reason they are known as industry standards...it is because industry is the major factor in behind the investment of engineering resources to work on these issues. There is often close communication/collaboration with academia on standards-setting as well, but the big money and people investments are from industry.

I think it is very important that we take a step back from the self-perpetuating cycle of reporters and bloggers quoting each other to really think through what is being said. There are big differences in opinions about the role of standards, about the future of certain technologies, about the balance between IP protection and "openness," about the types of technologies that should be contributed...and more...but to work under the assumption that Microsoft (or any other big software company) is not committed to long-term investment in standardization is simply incorrect.