THE MAGAZINE

The Betamax Dilemma

By Peter Piazza

Imagine if, back in the 1980s, you decided to use Sony’s Betamax format to record and archive your company’s security surveillance tapes. Within a few years, it would have become increasingly difficult to find tapes and replacement players, requiring you to buy new equipment while your archived tapes became obsolete and useless.

Can the same thing happen with the documents backed up in your digital archives? That question is at the heart of a debate—call it the Betamax Dilemma—that has pitted Microsoft against a group of companies that would like a piece of the software giant’s office-productivity software market.

These companies scored a temporary victory late last year when Massachusetts implemented a new policy that would ensure that from 2007, documents created by its Executive Department will fit a standard known as Open Document Format (ODF). At first, this policy excluded proprietary formats such as those created by default in Microsoft Office applications.

Massachusetts reversed its decision after Microsoft announced that it would submit a new format, known as Open XML, to Ecma International, a standards organization. (XML stands for Extensible Markup Language, which allows documents to be read in systems other than the ones in which they were created). According to Ecma, the new standard will ensure that “billions of existing Office documents can be converted to the Ecma XML standard format with no loss of data, formatting, properties, or capabilities.”

This will not result in the same kind of open standard created by cross-industry groups like the Organization for the Advancement of Structured information Standards (OASIS), where standards are made only after participants from many companies make sure that source code is truly open, says Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun Microsystems.

All Ecma did was to “rubberstamp Microsoft’s format,” he says.

A presentation by Ecma confirms this position. “The goal of the Technical Committee is to produce a formal standard for office productivity applications within the Ecma International standards process, which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats.” Phipps calls this “a travesty of standardization.”

Open format documents can be created using free open-source applications such as OpenOffice.org or for-fee products such as Sun’s StarOffice 8. Both are suites of tools that can do everything Office does, including word processing and creating spreadsheets and presentations.

Because these applications comply with ODF, documents created in these programs can be exchanged with any other application that uses this format without needing to be converted from a proprietary format.

Randy Linnell, vice president of business development with Linspire, Inc., a distribution of Linux that contains OpenOffice.org, says that companies need to start considering the question now to ensure the future availability of their documents. With an ODF-compliant application, “whatever vendor they happen to choose in the future, they’ll still be able to access all the information that’s been created today without having an expensive conversion or migration,” he says.

Phipps jokingly refers to the problem companies are facing as “corporate Alzheimer’s—it’s what happens when your organization begins to lose its memory.” He notes that Microsoft is about to release a new version of Office—meaning companies will eventually need to upgrade their old versions.

“That means corporations are faced with a choice point anyway,” he says. “This time, why not choose an alternative that gets rid of the Alzheimer’s problem for good rather than choosing to stick with the status quo and having the same problem in three years’ time when the next upgrade comes around?”

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