Owning Our Data The Microsoft Way

There has been a major battle that was fought and lost on Open Document Format, when the International Standard Organisation (ISO) finally accepted Microsoft supported OOXML as another document standard. Initially, ISO had voted against this standard, but after some countries switched their vote, it was finally passed by ISO in March this year. India and many other countries voted against the OOXML as an additional document format to the already existing Open Document Format, which is already an ISO standard. India, Brazil and South Africa have formally protested against the ISO vote and filed appeals against the ISO decision, claiming numerous violations of ISO procedures. The decision on their appeal is pending and should be taken by June.

There has been a lot of critique about Microsoft’s OOXML format getting adopted as an ISO standard, foremost being that it is still largely proprietary, poorly documented, does not allow interoperability, and defective by design in order to preserve bad design decisions taken by Microsoft earlier. Finally, why have multiple standards – Open Document Standard is already an ISO standard and is being used widely. Adding to this list is the attempts by Microsoft to corrupt/arm-twist the voters as was shown during the ISO voting.

The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), India’s standard making body had deliberated long and hard on OOXML. It was initially rejected unanimously by the BIS Technical Committee and finally, by rejected again before the ISO vote by 13 to 5 against OOXML. To become a standard, it has to receive two-thirds of the vote, here it was rejected by almost a two third vote!

However, we understand that the ministry of information technology is now proposing to adopt multiple standards for documents in its e-governance projects. At stake are two critical issues – who owns the data that is stored in documents implemented through such standards and the other is why should the government incur the cost of proprietary software when free and open source software is available from other sources?

Importance  of Standards

Why are standards important in the industry? Before we address the issue of OOXML and multiple document standards and all that it implies, we must understand why standards exist and how they influence the market. Standards make possible interchanging of parts in an equipment from different vendors or building equipment that will interface with equipment of other companies. For example, when you go the market and buy a screw of a certain size, you know that any nut of the same size can be used with that screw without any problems. Otherwise, for every equipment, we would have to buy the nuts and screws from only the company that originally made that particular product. It is this interchangeability or ease of interfacing that makes modern industry grow: it can specify the standard that it follows for all other products that follow the same product to be compatible with it. For the user, it is the freedom from tyranny from proprietary systems. Otherwise, they would be held captive to the original suppliers or the market leaders.

As standards allow for inter-operability, they are loved by the users or the consumers. For the same reason, they are acutely disliked by the dominant monopolies. For them, no standards means everybody will either have to buy from them or they will have to conform to what the dominant monopoly player defines as their interface. Therefore, monopolies argue that their products are the standards and everybody should be happy with this. Moreover, they also have strong patent and other protection built into their products to retain not only their dominant position, but also ensure that they can extract royalties from smaller players.

However, quite often the consumers or the bigger users get together and create standards for the industry. As the industry grows, various technical bodies try and create these standards so that the industry as a whole can grow. But this process is not an easy and comfortable one. It is generally a bitter battle that is waged by various parties before a technical consensus can be reached. Each of the bigger players try and use the standardisation process to get their products specifications as standard, just as countries use their standardisation procedure to keep their domestic market as a protected space for their industries. The use of for instance 110 V AC (the US and Japan) or 240 V AC (rest of  the world) is such an instance. The US wanted to protect its electrical appliance market from others and therefore chose to standardise on a different voltage. So also its use of NTSC or SECAM format for Television as against the PAL format used everywhere else.

Standards are also used as a tool to create global monopolies. Global corporations use their muscle power such that “their” standards can be adopted as global standards. This gives them a stranglehold on the technology through either a pool of patents or through their existing monopolistic position or both.

As and when the standard gets adopted as a global standard, all users are also forced to adopt the same. The companies that have a stranglehold on a particular standard can ensure that they will derive free royalties by virtue of that standard. A very good example of such a standard is MPEG4 that is used in DVD’s. For example, the Chinese manufacturers produce DVD players that cost $20 to manufacture and then have to shell out approximately $20 as patent royalties since they have to use the MPEG 4 format, for reading the content. MPEG4 has a number of patents underlying it and is the perfect example of how standards can be used to build monopolies or extract monopoly rent.

Standards and the  Software Industry

The software industry had earlier no standards. However, with evolution of the industry, more and more new standards have appeared. Microsoft initially kept away from all standard making, claiming that it was the de facto standard and everybody had to become either a sub vendor (Microsoft Partner) or an user. In their books, standards was opening their software to external scrutiny, something they were extremely loath to do. However, this initial complete opposition was increasingly difficult to maintain, as the users will always prefer standardisation to non-standard proprietary products.

The defining moment for software standards is today and is being fought over open document formats. The need for a common format for all documents, which any software vendor would have to comply with is critical for the user. Suppose I have written a book in a particular software and that software manufacturer either folds up or asks exorbitant price for the next version of his software. I have to either pay or lose whatever I have written – the book now longer belongs to me. The vendor has a lock-in on the document. Even if I want to access my own work, I still need to pay the software vendor.

Who owns the Data  and the Documents?

This is the question we raised in the beginning – who owns the data that the software “codes” and “decodes” for us? Any document, music or video is coded by software into binary form (zeroes and ones), generally compressed in some way and then decoded for us to be able to understand it as a document or a piece of music or a film. The meaning of the document is restored by this act of decoding. However, if the decoding is requires either patented or proprietary software, we are now at the mercy of companies who can extort money from us at will. This is the world of “Intellectual Property Rights”, through which companies extract monopoly profits from the consumers. This is what brings us to the format wars, the key question being battled today.

The Open Document Format started as an initiative to bring the data of the users under the control of the users. It was an attempt to have an open and common format for word processing, spreadsheets and database. Once this format is accepted, then all software companies producing such software, would have to read and write documents in this common format. It means that a document produced in one software could be read in another, as the format in which the document is stored is independent of the software creating or reading the document. In other words, liberty of the user from the tyranny of the software vendors. After a long and protracted process, Open Document Format was accepted as a standard by ISO and has a number of implementation.

An Open Document Format is obviously anathema to Microsoft. It would mean that any document that is produced by Microsoft could also be read by other software. The vendor lock-in – only we can read your old document created through our software — would be become a thing of the past. For Microsoft, fully 40 per cent of whose revenue comes from its Office suite – word-processing, spreadsheets and the database called MS ACCSESS, this would be disaster. Microsoft would have to compete by being better than others and not just from its existing monopoly.

When Open Document Format was being developed, Microsoft stayed out of it hoping the standard could be killed by ignoring it. If Microsoft did not implement ODF standard, it would be another standard which would just die out naturally.

Unfortunately for Microsoft and fortunately for the users, this did not happen. At least two widely used open office products conforming to Open Document Format are widely available. Google is implementing it also as net tool, making this even more easy to use and adopt. Worse, governments, worried about their data coming under a vendor lock-in and they being forced to pay fancy prices for the Office software suite every few years, started to prescribe software conforming to Standard protocols be used for government work. From Kerala to Massachusetts, Germany to Brazil, increasingly software specifications talked about document standards.

OOXML – A  Flawed Standard

With the writing on the wall, Microsoft launched its counter offensive. It introduced its standard – what it calls OOXML – as a new open document standard, using ECMA as its vehicle. Its aim was not to introduce a real document standard but to make Microsoft’s document formats  a new global standard. The problem is that as everybody knows, Microsoft products have grown completely haphazardly and therefore these formats are almost impossible to describe and even more difficult to implement. A test done by some software experts have shown that not only Word 2007 does not conform fully to the OOXML standard being pushed by Microsoft, it throws 122,000 exceptions! If this is the plight of Microsoft, what chance for any other vendor to have a compliant implementation of OOXML?

So why is Microsoft interested in this new standard? The answer is that it wants to keep other products out of its market – it is saying loud and clear that only Microsoft can read older Microsoft documents. So if anybody chooses any other software vendor and any other format, they will not be able to read Microsoft legacy documents properly. And if others are claiming to be compatible to a global standard, OOXML is what Microsoft will conform to in the future, allowing it to bid for government contracts. In any case, nobody but Microsoft is going to implement this standard, so if it is not fully compatible to the standard, it will be known only to a few people, that too mostly within Microsoft. It is pure marketing ploy – pretend your products conforms to some global standard and threaten others with losing their data if they switch to any other product.

Incidentally, this reading of Microsoft’s legacy documents is a hoax. Even Microsoft’s own software makes a mess of formatting when reading older documents. And Open Office, freely downloadable from the net and developed by the Free Software community is not only much more robust but also seems to do a better job of reading older documents than Microsoft’s own products. Interestingly enough,  Open Office reads Microsoft formats, and therefore can read all Microsoft documents, but Microsoft does not read any document format other than its own. Even though Open Document Format is an ISO standard, Microsoft will not read any document created with this format.  Incidentally, Open Office runs under Linux as well as Windows, something that MS Office does not.

So we come to the next question, if Microsoft products are not essential for either legacy document or reading what other people are doing, why should government accept for its e-governance work, a flawed standard such as OOXML, brought in through shenanigans which India is protesting against? Specially, when Open Office is free and Microsoft Office Suite is expensive? Why should the Indian people’s money be handed over to Microsoft when we can get software freely by switching to Open Office? Considering that for any income that Microsoft gets in this country, it does not even pay any tax.

Microsoft pays income tax on income generated from its software licensing in all other countries in the world but does not contribute even a single penny to the Indian exchequer in terms of income tax! The total income from 1999 to 2005 for Microsoft was computed to be about Rs 2,240 crore,  and the income tax department has now levied tax liabilities on this income of about Rs 700 crore. Microsoft is fighting this judgement in the courts claiming that its income is as royalty and not from license fees.

The important issue is why are we paying Rs 2,240 crore to Microsoft when other products are available which do not cost a rupee? And why are we locking away our data within the system of a party that can and does use predatory pricing to allow you access to your own data? And why is the government proposing to aid and abet this extortion by locking up its data in such proprietary format, forcing its citizens to buy Microsoft products to read its own government’s data? Why is ministry of information technology  changing its own position on OOXML, rejected by the technical community in India and now proposing to accept it as another standard for e-governance?