On Microsoft, PDF and the threat to open standards

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Adobe had been in talks with Microsoft and had expressed concerns about Microsoft’s inclusion of PDF (and other document export features) in the next version of Office. This triggered quite a bit of discussion online, and I wanted to make a quick post and hopefully help to clear up some of the resulting confusion as well as help correct some misperceptions.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that we had been talking to Microsoft around concerns we may have with Windows and Office. We are one of the largest (if not the largest) companies that target Windows, so I would imagine that we are in touch with Microsoft quite often. What surprised me though, was that Microsoft went so public with this in such an obviously coordinated (too coordinated?) press and blogging campaign, in order to spread a bunch of FUD and confusion about what was going on.Joe Wilcox of Jupiter Research has a couple of good posts (here and here) that give a pretty good overview of what is going on.So, let me try and clarify a couple of things, as I understand them.First, PDF is an open ISO standard (actually incorporated into a number of ISO standards). Because PDF is an open standard, anyone can use it (i.e. export to it, import it, etc…). This fact is reflected in the widespread adoption and support of PDF.What is different in this case, is that unlike any other company or group implementing the PDF specification, Microsoft is a monopoly. As a monopoly, Microsoft is under legal constraints and can’t leverage those monopolies (in Windows and Office) to unfairly muscle into new markets.Thus, the issue doesn’t appear to be whether Microsoft can use the PDF specification, but rather whether they will be allowed to leverage their dominant position in Windows and Office to muscle into a new competitive space. Even if they included perfect PDF export in Office, does anyone actually expect them to not slowly break or abandon updates to the feature over time (especially since they are introducing their own, non-standard document format (XPS))? This would result in either a fragmented standard, or users who can’t take advantage of new features as the standards evolve.Microsoft has consistently demonstrated a practice of undermining cross platform technologies (think HTML/Browsers and Java) and constrain innovation and has not been benign in its approach to “embracing” existing non-Microsoft standards.Finally, from what I understand, if there was any legal action to be brought against Microsoft, it would most likely be brought by whichever government agencies are responsible for monitoring and regulating monopolies. Thus, Microsoft’s claims that we shouldn’t “sue people for using an open file format” seems a little odd.It is clear Microsoft sees PDF as a competitor to target with their non-standard XPS Format. And to be quite honest, given Microsoft’s history of embracing and then extending existing formats, I personally don’t see how it can be trusted to not try and do the same with PDF (or any other standard that it wants to control). It is interesting that Microsoft only seems to be interested in PDF support at the exact same time that they are trying to introduce a direct competitor to PDF, one which is non-standard, and controlled by Microsoft.Anyways, I am sure there will be much more conversation about this over the coming days and weeks. I will be the first to admit that Adobe has not been as quick in responding to this online as we should have been. I think that Microsoft’s communication strategy caught us off guard. However, I do know that we are taking steps to ensure that we can be more responsive to stuff like this online in the future.Updated : Fixed broken links.