Microsoft’s Standards Are No Standards at All


Microsoft’s Standards Are No Standards at All

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

September 8, 2005,1895,1856869,00.asp

Opinion: Open standards for government documents and Web sites are the only way to make sure that everyone gets the access they need.
Is it too much to ask for governments to offer their services online so that anyone can get to them?

I don’t think so.

Some people, though, seem to have a problem with it.

My colleague, David Coursey, for example, said he believes that Massachusetts’ recent decision to use open-format documents for storage is "a curious one. It seems to be as much about punishing Microsoft as it is [about] the laudable goal of making information more accessible."

PointerRead Contributing Editor David Coursey’s commentary on Massachusetts’ document format decision here.

And this is a bad thing?

For as long as I can remember, Microsoft has been trying to set its own standards and formats to lock competitors out of the marketplace.

It’s good at it. It’s made billions at it.

Even now, when Microsoft owns the word processing field, Microsoft still won’t open its formats or use open standards-based formats like’s OpenDocument format.

Yes, programs like WordPerfect and OpenOffice can sort of read Microsoft’s formats. But, as a document’s level of formatting increases, these programs’ ability to render or translate them correctly goes downhill.

Of course, if Microsoft were to open its formats, that wouldn’t be a problem, but the Evil Empire hasn’t done that in the past and I see no reason to think they will any time soon. Special Report: Politics Meets IT

Coursey said he believes this doesn’t matter, because Word’s doc format has become a de facto standard and in 20 years’ time Microsoft documents will still be easy to open.

Will they now?

In 1985, I was briefly involved as a NASA representative on a NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) committee dealing with long-term data storage. The formats we decided on for storing data were ASCII, which, indeed, almost anything can still read, and EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code).

I’ll be surprised if more than one in twenty tech-savvy readers today remember EBCDIC, but it was a major format in its day. Indeed, if you visit NARA today, you’ll find that our works lives on because a lot of information is still kept in EBCDIC on 9-track magnetic tape and 3480-class magnetic tape cartridges.

Good luck reading that stuff today.

For that matter, try reading a sophisticated Office XP document with Word 2 or 6. Microsoft’s office formats only look stable and interoperable. They actually change with every version to help make sure you have to buy the next edition of Microsoft Office. Special Report: Windows Vista: Microsoft’s Longhorn Client

No, formats based on open standards are the only way to go, and I applaud Massachusetts for saying "enough" to Microsoft.

This is not, however, a problem that’s limited to Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. It’s much bigger and nastier than that.

Microsoft’s way or the highway.

Microsoft has long encouraged Web designers to create Web sites that work well—or work at all—with Internet Explorer. This incredibly stupid and shortsighted approach can no longer be permitted.

In the wake of the Katrina disaster, we’ve found that if you want to file a claim with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), you have to use Internet Explorer 6.

Gary Krakow of MSNBC found that you simply can’t file the claim if you’re using Firefox, Netscape or any of the other major third-party browsers.

You either ask for help very nicely using Microsoft products, or you don’t get help at all online, seems to be what FEMA is saying.

If your home PC is a Linux PC or a Mac, forget about it. There are ways around these problems so you can run IE 6 on these systems. WINE will do the trick for Linux and Virtual PC 7 will do it for the Mac … Of course, first you have to have those programs.

Oh, not to mention that Microsoft is encouraging Web developers to write for the new IE and the fully secured version of IE 7 will only work on Vista.

So, what does that mean? Does it mean that if a Katrina happened in, say, 2007, only users running Vista will be able to seek help from government agencies that have kept up to date with Microsoft?

It looks that way to me.

Listen, this isn’t brain surgery. Open formats and standards are the way for everyone to go. Or, at the very least, governments should adopt true open standards.

It is, after all, a government by the people and for the people, not just the people who own Microsoft stock. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late ’80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at