The Virtuous CIO  

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February 28, 2010 — The Upgrade Treadmill, Part 4

The dissection of Microsoft’s motives in promulgating the file format madness has given us inconclusive results. The marketplace will ultimately reward their efforts in the only coin which counts – profits. Or lack thereof. There are many who believe the worm is already working at the root of this empire. This company will not fail this year, or next. But it is very possible they have entered into their long decline.

It’s easy to sit back and throw stones at the inequities of the IT world, but I have no desire to defenestrate my own house. So let’s look at life as it is, rather than as we wish. How do we manage a less than optimal universe of file formats as they apply to our business? Let’s lay out some of the requirements for a new file format.

1. It must be broadly compatible or interoperable with anyone who wishes to exchange documents with my organization. The average user does not understand file conversion; trying to force a state of affairs requiring such translation will inhibit communication at best. 2. It must be stable over long periods of time. I will probably not have applications which readily read twenty-year-old documents, but there must be software broadly available which can read and translate these old formats. This militates against standardizing on obscure products and file formats. For example, try to open a document created ten years ago with the DeScribe word processor. 3. It must be easily set as the default choice by the office suite my organization uses. Forcing the users to save files in a non-default format each time they create a document will not work. In fact, you would be more successful in bailing the ocean. Microsoft will not allow you to use .doc as the default in Office 2007 (or 2010 as it stands right now). This means .doc is effectively dead. 4. You may include as many other requirements as desired, however they all must be subordinate to the first three enumerated here. Let me go a step further. It doesn’t matter what your business case is. It doesn’t matter whether you subscribe to open standards and worship at the altar of Linus, the first three items above will be as immutable as the Three Laws of Robotics. Transgressing any of the three will be a CLM1.

Now we can all heave a sigh of relief to have this decision out of the way. Is it not liberating? We have just established a best practice for file format selection (see my January 17th blog on Best Practices). Your colleagues in senior management will simply nod and say, "Whatever." However, you now have the card which will trump the inevitable arguments from subordinates who despise Microsoft. Simply tell them to come up with a solution which complies with your Three Laws of File Formats. Since they have accepted battle with you, they have ipso facto accepted the three laws.

So what does this mean back on practical Earth? I think it means that whatever office suite you select for use in your organization, you must choose OOXML as the default file format (unless, of course, you work primarily with the state of Massachusetts, in which case you will use the .odt format). If the rest of industry wakes up and realizes the importance of a long term, permanent file format like Open Document, then we would be free to select it as well. For those who object to handing this victory to Microsoft, I reply that those of us who have been married for decades have long known you must choose your battles.

1Career Limiting Move