Avoid the single supplier document taxes

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When I wrote about the five major areas that you need to consider when looking at the relative openness of two specifications, one of them was “implementation.” I will admit that my primary thoughts at that time concerned intellectual property: when a specification or standard has no IP hindrances that cause problems for either proprietary or free/open source development and distribution, then it is more open than one that does not.

Microsoft’s highly publicized and controversial production of their 6000+ page Office format has unfortunately caused me to add a new concern: if only one vendor can and will fully implement a specification, that it is less open than a standard that is better structured, makes better use of other open standards to do its work, and provides a solid foundation for true community contribution.

When customers are restricted to a single supplier for anything, they pay taxes. The first tax is the difference between what they must pay to that supplier vs. the theoretical cost to them if multiple suppliers existed and prices had to be competitive and lower. This is real money, and small and medium size businesses are especially vulnerable because they often lack the negotiating leverage to get suitable volume discounts.

Customers also pay an innovation tax. When the single supplier only improves the product enough to maintain income from product version upgrades, customers miss out on the competition between suppliers between who can create better products with genuinely useful and new features. The sole vendor has limited reasons to improve the product. Fresh ideas from new players are kept out of the product category. This is bad.

Open source has definitely been a big boon to forcing proprietary vendors to improve their products. Mozilla Firefox didn’t succeed and grab as much of the market as it did just because it was cool. It was because it was a better browser that was more secure, was faster and more standards-compliant, had a great extension architecture, and was being actively developed.

This development was both within the core browser team but also in the larger community of people who created extensions and themes. This software market category got vitality and users could see that there was life left in the browser world. Providers of other browsers had to keep up, and users benefitted.

When states like Texas, Minnesota, and California talk about the need for multiple independent implementations on multiple platforms for open document standards, I believe they are saying “we will not allow a single software provider to force us to pay the financial and innovation taxes for creating, using, and archiving our documents.” Those days are over, and good riddance.

Microsoft’s OOXML will and can be fully implemented by themselves alone. In my opinion, acceptance of it as your document format says three things:

  • you are comfortable with having a single supplier,
  • your procurement policies allow you to have a single supplier, and
  • you are just fine with paying the financial and innovation taxes as described above.

If you are a private organization, you have only yourselves to satisfy regarding these three elements. If you are a government, small or large, you have your citizens to whom you are accountable.

There is a reason why we are seeing so many parts of the public sector getting attracted to open technologies. Momentum is increasing rapidly.

OpenDocument Format (ODF) discussion and adoption is growing around the world. It will drive choice of applications, innovative use of information, increased competition, and lower prices. Go to a procurement officer and ask him or her if these are good things. Change is happening and users will, over time, get new applications. I have never met a CIO or financial person who has told me that they will never be getting new software.

There’s a fork in the road approaching rapidly and you must choose: go with a single supplier of the massive OOXML and pay those taxes, or go with ODF and get increased competition, innovation from many parties, and real choice of software and its providers. (I’m not even going to address the inane “users want a choice of standards” argument, I’m in too good a mood today.)

Sun’s plug-in for ODF use in Microsoft Office proves that you can keep your old software yet skip those nasty taxes I described. You can even have it well integrated with your software and avoid bizarre usability-decreasing gymnastics. Other solutions exist as well. We’ll see more and more ways in which ODF will be employed beyond the software we know and use today.

Pick your choice of software, get true interchageability of your information, increase and preserve your options. That’s the bottom line with ODF, and you get decreased taxes as a bonus. Sign me up. I think governments plus small and medium size businesses will as well.


  1. [Bob]: “…we will not allow a single software provider to force us to pay the financial and innovation taxes for creating, using, and archiving our documents.”
    More bluntly, I’ve come to call it “the Microsoft tax.” Mind you, I don’t hate Microsoft; I just don’t understand them. Between their legal actions, their hostile EULAs, anti-piracy measures against me, the paying customer, and their increasingly desperate attempts to lock my data into their (proprietary) software, I can no longer afford the “tax.” Many people don’t realize that Microsoft changed its Office file format six times out of its last eight versions!

    The beauty of ODF is that it removes the vendor from the data question. As long as your software supports ODF, I’m free to use it. If not, the alternative soon gets expensive, and the longer you’re locked in, the more expensive it will be to keep it.

  2. There’s a “back channel” which needs to open up from universities to schools, as well.

    Universities are natural creators of open-source software; starting famously with UC Berkeley ‘BSD’ Unix, which is now available here http://www.openbsd.org/ and here http://www.freebsd.org/ . Publically funded, and we rather expect their work product to be publically licensed.

    But all the schools I know of are exclusively Microsoft Windows shops; not entirely sure why, but I suspect that it is becuase they get good discounts on Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office; and for the Microsoft distribution partner, the price he buys Office in at depends on the volume he is able to sell; so he has an incentive to make sure that every Personal Computer in every school runs Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. Otherwise he tends to lose franchise territory to another distributor who will do the job “properly”.

    And no, I haven’t actually seen the terms of any contract between a school and a Microsoft distribution partner; but I assume there must be such contracts.

    So why aren’t the universities driving open-source software into the schools ? Is there anything that stops them ? Do they maybe not realise they should ?

  3. Thanks, Simon, I fixed the link.

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