March 23, 2002

Commentary: New Windows "filesystem" a threat to Open Source

- By James Treleaven -

On March 13, a special
report
published on C|Net's News.com site described the revival of an old
Microsoft initiative.

That News.com report said: "Microsoft is replacing the plumbing of its Windows operating system with technology borrowed from its SQL Server database software. Currently, documents, Web pages, e-mail files, spreadsheets and other information are
stored in separate, mostly incompatible software. The new technology will
unify storage in a single database built into Windows that's more easily
searchable, more reliable, and accessible across corporate networks and the
Internet."

So Microsoft wants to get rid of application files (such as MS Word doc
files) and store everything in a database. The ramifications of this are
staggering. It is a brilliant strategic move in that Microsoft users are
not "chained down" by their loyalty to Windows -- they are chained down by
their loyalty to their most heavily used Office applications -- principally
Word and Excel. Microsoft's ability to keep users locked into Windows is
largely a function of its ability to keep users locked into Microsoft
Office.

Open Source projects such as OpenOffice and KWord hope to win these users
over, but to do so, they rely on the critical interoperability provided by
their import/export filters. The Microsoft file formats have become the IT
lingua franca of office workers all over the world. Whether it is
professional writers submitting articles in Word doc format to their
editors or consultants emailing cost breakdowns to their clients in Excel xls, people have to be able to speak "Microsoft" to do business in the
world today.

I personally have written several letters to antitrust officials begging
them to force Microsoft to publish the specifications of the Microsoft
Office Application file formats. Such publication would really level the
playing field, and allow users to decide on whichever office productivity
applications they liked best. This, in turn, would give people much more
flexibility in choosing operating systems.

But just think -- what if there were no file formats to publish? "Sorry
judge, we would like to, but the data is not stored in files. It is stored
in a database that is an indivisible part of the operating system."

Microsoft has gone to great length to make it difficult for competitors to
reverse engineer its file formats. On the KOffice mailing list, Rob Landley
recently described
how Microsoft Word dumps
its run-time structures to disk with block
writes "with all the ... compiler-chosen packing offsets
that implies." This is sort of thing is widely regarded as very bad
engineering practice. Yet, I have met enough Microsoft developers to be
convinced they are smart people. I believe that it actually forms the basis
of an antitrust defense. If Bill Gates sent out memos saying "competing
software better not be able to read our files, or heads will roll," well
gosh, he could get into legal trouble. But poorly written code ... well,
the government can't start putting people into jail for that.

This move to eliminate document files is just the culmination of Microsoft's
previous strategy. Perhaps the company considers it to be its "final solution"
for current and future office application competitors.

Think about it. Microsoft can make the database records totally
inaccessible to any program other than the application that stored them (for
security reasons, of course). Throw in some encryption, and if Microsoft is
really smart, a patented API by which the major Microsoft applications
read or write to and from the datastore -- and interoperability with other office
applications will become a priori impossible.

People will still need to collaborate on documents, of course -- something we
currently do by exchanging "files." But in the future, the documents can
simply move (via .NET) from the datastore buried deep in the guts of a
Windows OS running on one computer, to a datastore embedded in a MS OS
running on another computer. Microsoft will gradually make the whole thing
more and more opaque, to the point where people will not even think
about what they are doing in terms of files anymore. The concept of "files"
may be something that is taught to our great grandchildren in history class.

Furthermore, if you agree with my premise that making doc files
unavailable to competing applications is a critically important tactical
goal for Microsoft, then the entire .NET initiative starts to make
considerably more sense. After all, if word-processing is a service
provided by an application that is rented over the Web, where do the
documents sit? Not on the local file system! No, with .NET, you will rent
Microsoft Word 2010 by the hour, to edit documents that reside in your
remote document repository (also a .NET service), all of which sits safely
and securely on some server in Redmond.

You want physical access to the
file system? What do you need that for? You want to download your
document to disk? Sure you can do that, but you will have to save it in
the now depreciated Word 2002 format. Don't worry, you will only lose a
small amount of the formatting. Of course, as time goes on, extracting
files from a .NET document repository to some increasingly ancient Word file
format will become more and more of a hassle. Thus, like the proverbial
frog in the slowly warming water, the change will be so gradual and
imperceptible that by the time that it has become indisputable that things
have gone seriously wrong, it will simply be too late to put up any
resistance.

While the U.S. Department of Justice is busy conceding the last war -- the one
in which Microsoft "integrated" Internet Explorer into its operating
system -- Microsoft is moving its battalions ahead to win the coming war.

We shouldn't underestimate the cunning of Microsoft's strategy of
integrating more and more functionality into the operating system. Combined
with an opaque OS-hosted datastore and .NET, this strategy represents a
very credible roadmap for Microsoft to achieve a critical mass of
proprietary interconnections, which could quickly grow to be completely
unassailable.

"Commentary" articles are contributed by Linux.com and NewsForge.com readers. The opinions they contain are strictly those held by their authors, and may not be the same as those held by OSDN management. We welcome "Commentary" contributions from anyone who deals with Linux and Open Source at any level, whether as a corporate officer; as a programmer or sysadmin; or as a home/office desktop user. If you would like to write one, please email editors@newsforge.com with "Commentary" in the subject line.

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