The Food Chain

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (768 Words)

A friend blogged yesterday about Microsoft finally releasing the specifications for the binary Office formats recently - I welcome that Microsoft is finally opening  up on these formats, even if it’s largely irrelevant from a technical perspective now all the reverse-engineering has mostly been done, the patent protection for reimplementations is a major boon. It  kinda made me think that maybe,  just maybe Microsoft are starting to realise that opening all standards related to critical business data is what customers really want. I don’t for a second believe they’re doing in ultimately in anyone’s interests but their own, but nevertheless the result is a positive one.

However, I came across an article on Groklaw today which reminded me why we have to always try to look behind the actions themselves, and look for the ultimate motivations. It’s evidence from a court case which involved the publishing of an internal Microsoft technical evangelism manual - admittedly from 1997, but the fundamentals are unlikely to be much different today. A lot of it is fairly obvious stuff, but it does reveal Microsoft’s aspirations to complete and total customer lock-in in a brutally raw fashion. Summed up, it comes down to: ‘use whatever techniques you can that make Microsoft platforms the single de-facto standard’. I quote:

So, We’re Just Here to Help Developers, Right?

We’re here to help MICROSOFT®!

    * MICROSOFT pays our wages

    * MICROSOFT provides our stock options

    * MICROSOFT pays our expenses

    * We’re here to help MICROSOFT

          o By helping those developers …

          o …That can best help MICROSOFT …

          o …Achieve MICROSOFT’s objectives

    * Did anyone miss the point, here?

For anyone who thinks along the lines of ‘Microsoft is great because they help us developers’, it’s worth always bearing that in mind that Microsoft, indeed any supplier, are ultimately only interested in their own goals. That strategy may trickle down to positive actions at the production end, and that’s all well and good while your interests happen to be aligned, but don’t for a second assume that you’ll necessarily be getting the best deal, and don’t forget that in the supplier’s eyes you’re a tool in a greater game. From Microsoft’s evangelism document again:

The Role of ISVs

  • Pawns in the Struggle
    • Can’t let ‘em feel like pawns
    • Treat them with respect (as you use them)

Now, let’s be clear - this is a commercial organisation, and a large, aggressive American one at that - so such attitudes are to be expected. That’s capitalism after all, and nothing in the document suggests doing things that are blatantly wrong (it specifically rules out lying although it doesn’t rule out bribery of analysts). Attitudes may have softened in certain areas of the company since 1997, although I doubt they have at the top, they’re likely just learning to put a softer face on it (as every company is doing - let’s not pretend this is an attitude solely related to Microsoft). But I do think that it’s sometimes easy for people to forget their position in the food chain, and be lulled into an impression of ‘Big Company X is my friend’  - reading documents like this should be a bit of a wake-up call.

You should never trust any supplier to do what’s best for you, particularly if they’re big - they will eat you alive if it suits their interests. Despite the rhetoric, they only have their own interests at heart at the end of the day, and it pays to never forget that. If you care at all about the longevity of your own business, it’s a good idea to retain as much control as you can over your own operations (ie avoid lock-in), and to seek partners of roughly equal size to yourself to avoid being horrendously outgunned in any problem situations. Always look at the motivations underlying actions rather than just the actions in themselves - it’s common practice for suppliers to put out an attractive looking ‘honey pot’ to pull you in, and once you’re stuck, to milk you for all they’re worth. It’s smart to always look beyond the obvious, beyond immediate gratification, and to see whether you’re really doing what’s best for you or your customer, or whether you’re just taking the easy route that’s been laid out with the express intention of binding you permanently to a larger supplier.

I do still think the opening of the Office standards is a wholely positive thing though - this article just served to remind me not assume they’ve gone all soft 😉