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InfoQ Homepage News Fire and Motion: What OpenXML Means to IBM and Lotus Notes

Fire and Motion: What OpenXML Means to IBM and Lotus Notes

In the on going debate between ODF and OpenXML, two things are becoming clear. The first is that both ODF and OpenXML are essentially proprietary formats dressed up to be open standards. The second is neither IBM nor Microsoft is going to back down.

Microsoft's reason for avoiding ODF is clear. ODF does not have the features necessary to represent the binary Office formats with 100% accuracy. In addition, the specification is not complete enough to ensure compatibility between implementations.

The Lotus Gamble

Why is IBM working so hard to prevent OpenXML from becoming an ISO standard?

One possible explanation is that they bet the farm on ODF. We are not talking about OpenOffice, as free/open source applications are not exactly moneymakers. No, the application that IBM is betting on is the venerable Lotus Notes.

According to John Fontana of Network World, "Hannover, the first public beta of Notes, scheduled to ship this fall, will include a text editor, a spreadsheet editor and a presentation graphics editor that support the XML-based ODF standard".

More importantly, the other formats it will support include the current version of Microsoft Office and previous versions of OpenOffice. What is not included is the OpenXML format, which is understandable considering this article was written back in May.

Joel Spolsky has a term, Fire and Motion, to describe the effect new technology has on existing products. When hot new technologies are released, vendors are left with a hard choice. Retool to use the new technology, which causes them to fall behind in feature development, or stay the course and risk obsolescence.

So consider IBM's current predicament. They have spent a small fortune ensuring that Notes has seamless support for the old Microsoft Office format. Then Microsoft went and changed to format. It is not a minor change either; it will require a major rewrite of Notes.

IBM cannot afford to just ignore OpenXML. So long as Microsoft Office is the dominate player, they need to be compatible to even be considered by most companies. But can they afford to start over again with Notes 8 just entering Beta?

It is no wonder that IBM is upset with Microsoft. Their only chance to avoid serious delays and an expense rewrite is to ensure that OpenXML fails. It does not really matter if Microsoft adopts ODF or stays with binary formats, so long as Notes is still compatible.

Government Standards

Of course, there is another side to Fire and Motion. If IBM can ensure ODF is the de facto standard, Lotus Notes could leap into the spotlight while Microsoft Office scrambles to implement the ODF format.

This is not a far-fetched scenario. C/Net reports that Belgium has already mandated that ODF will be the format for exchanging documents within the government. According to the article, OpenXML must be accepted by ISO to even be considered by the Belgian government.

With Lotus notes being posed to be the first major commercial application to support ODF, and OpenOffice being so heavily influenced by IBM, there is the chance to gain a pocket monopoly in Belgium. Moreover, with the incompatibilities between different ODF implementations tripping up late comers, IBM could theoretically control that market for years to come.

Belgium is not the only government pushing for open document standards. The commonwealth of Massachusetts has mandated that ODF and Adobe's PDF will be the only formats allowed for document exchange. While they have since relaxed their criteria and allowed for the possibility of OpenXML, this may change if OpenXML is not accepted by ISO.

The questions remain:

  • Was it the intent of Microsoft to crush Lotus Notes 8 or an unfortunate side effect?
  • Is IBM planning to leverage ODF's status as a standard to force Microsoft Office out of the market?  


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