The Data Game

For the last 20 years or so, Microsoft has been playing the same old game. Sure, they morph and adapt along with the times, and they expand into new markets. But basically they are in the software business and one of the main ingredients in their recipe has been always this: “Keep the data format proprietary and take advantage of it.”

Data data bo bata
bonana fana fo fata
fee fi mo mata
data. — Shirley Ellis

Of all the protocols and file formats they have invented, could you count how many have been opened? Not many, apparently. Sure, if you count the simpler stuff like INI, BMP, or WAV it may add up a bit, but what about mailboxes (DBX, Outlook Express), relational databases (MDB, MS Access), finance databases (MNY, MS Money), documents (DOC, MS Word), file server protocols (CIFS), filesystems (NTFS), or even help files (CHM, HXS)? And among those that are “opened”, there still exist undocumented parts reserved by the Redmondians to be used if necessary. Even their NT syscalls are undocumented and being kept secret.

Yes, Microsoft has found the secret to software success. It’s not the code that matters, it’s the data. Anybody can create another OS or word processor, but if your customers’ data are in your hands, you can make them stick with you. You can always be competitive. You are always one step ahead of your competitors. No matter how much your software sucks.

This strategy should perhaps be followed by commercial software makers when they think that they are an early player in the market. However, this strategy should be realized and scoffed upon by Microsoft customers all around the globe.

Recently Microsoft stated that all current software is wrong. It shouldn’t be one software for mail, another for editing documents, another for IM, etc. It should be one big honkin’ program to do all of our stuff. Well, the giant is up to its old tricks — that is the data game. Because we all know it isn’t like that at all. It’s our data that needs to be in one big honkin’ place. And it should be in a common, open standard format so that all software, no matter who the vendor is, can access our data. For, you see, most of our computing mess currently is actually caused by duplication of data and inconsistencies between them.

So, in effect, Microsoft wants one program to maintain all our data (and thus creates the ultimately competitive program and ultimately locks us up in it). But what we really need is one [copy of] data that is accessible from all programs (and thus we are not tied to any programs/vendors). Microsoft knows scenario number 2 is bad for business, so it lies through its teeth and say that scenario 1 is what we need.

Microsoft also states in their press releases that Office 11 will store your data all in XML? (Hm, I thought Office 10 has already done that to some degree.) As much as this might sound nice and open, things will still stay in the same game. XML is just an encoding format. The difference would only be like: previously our data was in binary, now it will be encoded in MIME64/uuencode/something like that. The file format will still be as proprietary as ever. Don’t expect we will be able to read and understand your XML Office files with human eyes.

So be afraid when Microsoft finally offered us the big honkin’ thing. The file format will be proprietary as hell. Microsoft wants all our documents, all your emails, all your chat logs, all your income and tax data. Are we willing to submit those data to Microsoft by storing them in a proprietary format that only Microsoft software can parse and process?

About the author: Steven is a software developer residing in Bandung, Indonesia.


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