Stuck With Microsoft

Originally posted: 2010-05-27

I tend to gripe about Microsoft quite a bit. Some people may wonder why. Some may dismiss it as a fanboy's hatred for the opposition. Let me explain.

The nastiest thing about Microsoft is probably their reliance on lock-in as a business model. This is best demonstrated by Microsoft Office. The Office document formats were not publicly documented for a long time. Today, the specifications for Microsoft's Office binary document formats are publicly available, which is a good thing. However, those formats are not the default in current versions of Office. Instead, the newer versions of Office use Microsoft's Office OpenXML format. This format is openly documented. In theory, at least. In practice, the documentation is ridiculously long and vague. What does "format like Word 95 mean"? Only Microsoft knows for sure. Thus, only Microsoft can implement the specification correctly. Also, the specification allows arbitrary binary data to be embedded in the document, opening the door for undocumented extensions down the line. All this would be bad enough on its own, but Microsoft takes it a step further: Office 2007 doesn't even implement the Office OpenXML specification correctly! Thus, even a competing office suite that implements the Office OpenXML specification to the letter will not properly display Microsoft Office documents created with Office 2007. Office 2010 does at least conform to the "transitional" version of the specification, but it still doesn't conform to the "strict" version.

What does this all mean for the end user? It means that the end user can only reliably view his own documents with Microsoft Office. That is, once he starts using Office, he is effectively stuck with it, as the price of switching includes all the time it would take to fix all the formatting problems caused by the new software not fully understanding the Microsoft format (and in some cases possibly retyping the entire document). Thus, even a free, easier-to-use, technologically superior office suite will have trouble gaining market share. This is really a hallmark of anti-competitive behavior: if the entity engaging in the behavior did not already have a majority market share, the behavior would be detrimental to their business, but because they do have a majority market share, it serves instead to shut out their competitors.

I should note that OpenOffice is by no means perfect (in fact, the project has some rather nasty governance issues that discourage outside contributions), and Microsoft Office may, in fact, be superior in certain areas. That said, I think it will suit most people just fine, and the fact that it uses the Open Document Format by default means that any other office suite should be perfectly capable of opening them correctly. There is even an ODF plugin for Microsoft Office that enables it to open ODF files. There is a trap waiting for the unwary, though. Microsoft Office 2007 SP2 contains support for reading and writing ODF files, but it is of substantially worse quality than the third-party ODF plugins available. In fact, there is a superior third-party ODF plugin that was funded by Microsoft. Why did Microsoft feel the need to re-invent that wheel? I suspect it was done for one purpose: allow Microsoft to claim to support ODF (as required for use by some governments) while making ODF look bad.

TL;DR? Using Microsoft Office is like smoking crack: once you start, it's hard to stop.