These are some notes on the contentious issue of using Microsoft products and formats.

Microsoft has been generous with Stanford by donating buildings, equipment and software. Stanford has produced a technology to capture academic lectures in a form for replay that considerably transcends a simple video record. This technology is heavily dependent on Microsoft technologies, in part due to Microsoft’s generosity. I don’t want to get judgmental here; I would do just the same if I were Microsoft.

Our project is directed towards the open source community. One of the characteristics of that community is varying degrees of aversion to the commercial software community. Today Microsoft is at the center of the latter.

An issue that is separate from this, I think, is status of the payload of the technology, namely the recorded lectures themselves. I, for one, hope that these will be accessible into the indefinite future. Being in a proprietary format works against that end, for Microsoft has an incentive to maintain a continuous flow of format upgrades that seem to impel payload owners to follow along, transcribing their payload, despite gradual damage. This is a continual cost to the content owner both in payments to Microsoft and also in the cost of continuous content maintenance. Running old copies of Microsoft software is often impossible for it requires old versions of the OS which, in turn, require old hardware systems. Microsoft has the incentive, and means, to move gradually towards emerging technologies that protect data from export, or allow such export only with substantial damage.

My judgment may be biased in this case but I think that Microsoft has a well developed strategy of continuous revenue flow from those who must merely maintain accessibility of data stored in proprietary Microsoft formats. I am thinking of Microsoft Word. My information here is spotty and I don’t have much conviction concerning the above comments.

Technology is advancing rapidly and any data must be transcribed periodically unless we invest early in some sort of data perpetuity technology. That is an interesting subject but not in the current charter of our project. Avoiding Microsoft is neither necessary nor sufficient for avoiding losing data to obsolete formats, but I think it helps. My fear is that Microsoft will end up controlling the data, in effect, by legal control of the only software that can access the data.

I don’t want to bash Microsoft here but they have long term strategies which may well be at odds with our strategies. We must think long term as well while making our current choices.

It was argued that Microsoft technologies do not scale. I do not have first hand information on this.

In summary there are these general points against using Microsoft formats and programs:

On the other hand Microsoft has been generous and that counts for a lot!

More Generally (aside from Microsoft)

I can quote features of past IBM technologies that seemed to protect the customer’s data and programs from obsolescence and “capture by IBM technology”. I can quote fewer recent features, however. At one time IBM engineered machines so that it was remarkably difficult to engineer devices to attach to them except at precisely defined interfaces. Their media formats were well documented, however. I think that this has changed.

Anecdote: The last time I looked, the ISO standards organization provided online access to ISO standards. It cost $2000 per seat-year however! This mitigates against garage start-ups that need to do substantial exploratory design before they know if they have a good product plan. I think that some standards organizations have been partially captured by the large companies who contribute to their work. It is only natural. IETF standards are really open and free, so far. This is not something to legislate against, I think, but it is certainly something that bears on the meaning of “standard”.

Another anecdote: Early in the FireWire (IEEE 1394) planning there was talk of a standard mapping of SCSI to FireWire so that a standard software module could be added to a system whose job was to transform any SCSI driver into a FireWire driver. This would avoid the necessity of each new FireWire device manufacturer of producing a new driver for each combination of operating system and system platform. This would have meant, however, that digital cameras would be unable to send images directly to FireWire disks in a form that only proprietary software could retrieve. As a result FireWire disks seem to lock in data from cameras so that the underlying bits are inaccessible to general programs.

There is a battle going on that few are aware of and it affects us. It especially affects the open source community.