ODF Goes Native in Office

So Microsoft says it's going to natively support the OpenDocument Format (ODF) XML-based file formats in the upcoming version of Microsoft Office 2007.

As Dave Nagel reports, Service Pack 2 (SP2) of Office 2007 will add support for ODF v1.1. The move will eliminate the need to install discreet code or translators to read and write ODF documents within Office, according to a statement.

Normally, such an announcement wouldn't be news. After all, Office has natively supported a host of popular or standards-based formats over the years, including HTML and Rich Text Format (RTF). In the case of ODF, however, the software giant has dragged its feet on ODF support for years, contending that the format failed to adequately render Office documents. Microsoft has long promoted its own Office Open XML (OOXML) file format -- recently approved as an ISO standard -- as a better option.

That hasn't changed, but the addition of native ODF support in Office 2007 SP2 is a major shift for the company. Perhaps most notable, Microsoft said in a statement that SP2 will "allow customers to set ODF as the default file format for Office 2007."

The problem is, Microsoft has a major credibility issue here. No matter what the software giant does or says, no one in the ODF community believes that it will deny its own OOXML format an advantage over ODF. Which is why the European Commission (EC) continues to investigate Microsoft for anti-competitive practices, and why the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) had decided to refer interoperability complaints to the EC.

As ODF Alliance Managing Director Marino Marcich put it:

"The proof will be whether and when Microsoft's promised support for ODF is on par with its support for its own format. Governments will be looking for actual results, not promises in press releases."

For Microsoft, ODF support is one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't deals. Even if it essentially hands away vital competitive leverage by putting ODF on par with OOXML in the Office UI, it will take months or even years to convince folks like Marcich and investigators at the EC of its sincerity.

What do you think of Microsoft's move to provide native support for ODF 1.1 in Office 2007 SP2? Can the company do more to convince skeptics of its intentions, or do you see this as just another smokescreen out of Redmond? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/27/2008 at 1:15 PM2 comments

Microsoft and Yahoo: Three Is Company, Too

It's been three months, 22 days and about 1 million breathless news stories since Microsoft first announced on Feb. 1 that it intended to buy online services giant Yahoo! for $44.6 billion.

And from that moment on, the takeover effort has played out like a bad episode of "Three's Company."

If you remember the late-'70s sitcom (and I pity you if you do), you know that it starred the late John Ritter and a newly discovered Suzanne Somers, who would go on to become a late-night infomercial legend with the ThighMaster franchise. But what set "Three's Company" apart wasn't the uproarious sexual innuendo, or the gratuitous physical comedy, or even the inspired casting of Don Knotts as a dimwitted landlord. It was that every plot line -- Every. Single. One. -- revolved around a shockingly obvious, artificial, almost infantile misunderstanding. The show was...relentless.

Which brings me back to Microsoft. The company has circled and sniffed at Yahoo! for years. The initial offer was a barely veiled threat wrapped in a $44.6 billion dollar velvet glove. Yahoo played coy, said no, and then said maybe, if it could have more dough. For its part, Microsoft threatened a hostile takeover, anted up, walked away, then stormed back again asking about a search deal (though it says a hostile takeover could still happen).

And then Carl Icahn showed up.

At this stage, it wouldn't surprise me if Jerry Yang wasn't scrambling to find places to hide members of Yahoo's board of directors, so Icahn can't find them and fire them. It's gotten that silly.

The problem, of course, is that software development isn't physical comedy. The parade of twists, slips and pratfalls that passed for plot on the set of "Three's Company" stands to ruin the productive effort of software development teams at both Microsoft and Yahoo. Heck, the software integration challenge posed by the initial takeover bordered on the biblical.

But, hey, maybe I've got it all wrong. Maybe John Ritter tripping over the couch every other episode was really, really funny and I just didn't get it.

Natural-born cynics like the folks at underground blogger Mini-Microsoft seem to agree. They were were ecstatic when the Yahoo deal seemed dead. Now, they're terrified that the proposed search deal could bloom into another takeover attempt.

What do you think of the months-long saga of Microsoft and Yahoo? Is there a better sitcom we ought to be comparing it to? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/22/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Digistan: In Defense of Open Standards

As industry association names go, I have to say that Digistan is among the worst. Yes, the name is a clever compression of Digital Standards Organization and provides for a short-and-sweet URL (digistan.org). But that doesn't excuse the group from having to respect the Iron Law of Naming Stuff.

To wit: If your organization sounds like an old breakaway Soviet republic, it probably needs a new name.

Still, it's hard not to like what Digistan is dishing. The group was formed earlier this year to promote, and I quote, "customer choice, vendor competition, and overall growth in the global digital economy through the understanding, development, and adoption of free and open digital standards ('open standards')."

All these concepts got a lot of jaw work during the recent Microsoft Office Open XML standardization push, which culminated in OOXML being approved by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as a formal, industry standard. As acrimonious as that contested debate was, it certainly raised awareness about the benefit -- and fragility -- of free and open digital standards in the development and IT arenas.

In an open letter, Digistan is calling people to man the bulwarks and help foment for open standards, even as it prepares to present what it calls the Hague Declaration. That document -- which links the use of open, standards-based technologies to the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- calls for governments to do three things:

  1. Procure only information technology that implements free and open standards;
  2. Deliver e-government services based exclusively on free and open standards;
  3. Use only free and open digital standards in their own activities.

What do you think of the group's Hague Declaration? Do you believe that open standards are under the dire threat depicted by Digistan? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/20/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Waiting on Ozzie

Conventional wisdom says you never want to follow a legend. For every Steve Young following Joe Montana, there are countless examples of people who struggled in the shadow of their famed predecessors. Think John Sculley at Apple, or the parade of interim execs who followed Philippe Kahn at Borland.

So pity Ray Ozzie, who two years ago was named Chief Software Architect of Microsoft. The facile intellect behind Groove Networks seemed just the man to shepherd Microsoft forward in the era of open source software and Internet-borne services. And yet, here we are, waiting still for Ozzie to strike his course.

Oh, we're told that moment is coming, but we've heard this before. We were told to wait until MIX 07 for Ozzie to make a splash, then told to wait for MIX 08. Now Microsoft points us to the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) in October. At some point, Ozzie is going to have to assume leadership of Microsoft's technology vision, or cede it to someone who will.

Maybe Microsoft believes that the recent Live Mesh announcement is the first step toward Ozzie's emergence, but I'm not so sure. The service is awfully raw and today addresses just a fraction of the broad vision that it must fulfill. What's more, a number of industry watchers, such as Mary Jo Foley and Dmitry Sotnikov, opine that Live Mesh is essentially another cut on the Groove product.

Other takes are more cynical. In his blog, Joel Spolsky complains that Live Mesh is "Groove, rewritten from scratch, one more time. Ray Ozzie just can't stop rewriting this damn app, again and again and again, and taking 5-7 years each time."

And so the question begs. Two years after ascending to the very pinnacle of the software development industry, is it time to ask if Ray Ozzie might, in fact, be a software visionary without a vision? Or should we show a little patience and wait for PDC? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/15/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

BlackBerry Gets a Live Endorsement

I've been telecommuting in one form or another since 1995. I had broadband back when broadband meant wrestling with the phone company and its legions of under-trained installers to get a working ISDN line (and wiring, oh yes, the wiring) in my second-floor San Francisco flat.

In fact, telecommuting allowed me to move in 1997 from San Francisco to Burlington, Vt., where I quickly learned to appreciate how good the digital life was in the Bay area. I recall being given a stark choice between paying an arm and a leg for DirecTV satellite digital download service (the upstream was an analog dial-up line) or paying two arms and two legs for a dedicated 56K frame relay link from the telco to my home office. Cable services wouldn't arrive for another two years. DSL? A six-year wait.

And yet, 11 years after my move from San Francisco, I'm finally crossing the last bridge in my personal, digital divide. You see, last week I finally (finally) caved in and got a BlackBerry.

It's not that I wasn't willing to be of the body. I would've happily joined the ranks of the addicted and gotten a crackberry years ago, if I thought the darn thing would work up here. But cellular service in Vermont is as fickle as the weather. I'd say at least 40 percent of the cell phone calls with my wife consist entirely of the two of us shouting "What? What!?" into the phone. Calls drop when the wind shifts and routine conversations turn into fiscally disastrous international roaming sessions if I drive too close to the Canadian border.

In short, it's been a complete crapshoot.

But two things happened that changed my mind. One, service in Northwest Vermont has finally improved enough to make digital services tenable (if still a bit unpredictable), and two, the applications are awesome.

I must be on to something because less than 48 hours after getting a new BlackBerry 8130, Microsoft and RIM agreed to bring Windows Live services (like Live Hotmail and Live Messenger) to BlackBerry users. The move opens a broad platform for Live development and, I expect, will have important implications for Live Mesh development and adoption in the enterprise.

But let's not get distracted from what's important in all this: I have a BlackBerry. And if I (finally) have a BlackBerry, the divide is really closing. The era of ubiquitous and compelling device-borne apps has begun.

Am I getting ahead of myself, or am I so far behind that the world has actually wrapped around the screen and caught up to me from behind? You tell me. E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/13/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

CodeGear's Long Goodbye

Redmond Developer News was just getting started, launching its inaugural November 2006 issue, when Borland Software Corp. announced it would spin out its Developer Tools Group (DTG) as an independent subsidiary called CodeGear.

The timing, in a sense, was fitting. RDN arrived as a newcomer to the dev space, covering the new generation of tools and functionality built around .NET Framework 3.0 and Web development. And here was one of the old guard, Borland's tool unit (you know, the one that gave us the modern IDE via Anders Hejlsberg's Turbo Pascal), getting a new lease on life after languishing on the sales block for over six months.

Well, the lease is now up. Yesterday, leading data management and admin tools vendor Embarcadero Technologies announced it was buying CodeGear from Borland for the fire sale price of $23 million.

The purchase is good news all around. For Borland, it finally unburdens the ALM-focused organization from a dev tools business that it honestly had no interest in running. For Embarcadero, the acquisition positions the firm to innovate in the fast-growing arena of data-driven development. We can expect some very cool stuff to come out of this purchase eventually.

And for CodeGear? As Burton Group Research Director Peter O'Kelly said to me, CodeGear will enjoy "another lap around the track." Dev shops that use JBuilder, C++ Builder, Delphi and the new PHP and Ruby tools can feel more confident that those tools will continue to be supported and refined. CodeGear, in short, has a future again.

But more important, CodeGear will soon have some fantastic greenfield space to innovate against. There's more than a long industry legacy at CodeGear; there are a lot of good engineers and good engineering there. And those assets and resources are now going to be turned toward one of the most important and, honestly, exciting challenges facing the dev industry: enabling effective data-driven application modeling and deployment.

So CodeGear, finally, is no longer part of Borland. The once-mighty dev tools company with technical savvy and vision is no more. But now, ironically, it may be poised to do some great things.

What do you think of the purchase? E-mail me at [email protected] with your thoughts.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/08/2008 at 1:15 PM2 comments

Popfly Game Creator

When Microsoft launched its Popfly mashup creation site and tooling, it was seen as an early effort to get Silverlight out in front of the non-coding public and to help blunt the momentum of innovative mashup tools like Yahoo Pipes. Since the May 2007 launch, Popfly has managed to do just that, emerging as a popular mashup tool for non-programmers.

Now, Microsoft is taking the Popfly concept in an intriguing direction: game creation.

The way Microsoft figures it, Popfly Game Creator will tap into the next wave of user-generated content. Microsoft Developer Division Senior Vice President S. Soma Somasegar blogged about the new offering here.

As Jacqueline Russell, lead product manager for the Popfly team, told us:

"When we think of the domains that the phenomenon of user-generated content has penetrated already -- text, video, images -- games are really the next on that list, and Popfly goes a long way towards making that easy and accessible for everyone."

No surprise, Microsoft isn't targeting the suit-and-tie set with this offering, instead chasing what it calls "students, hobbyists and other non-professionals." What Popfly Game Creator could do, however, is draw more than a few bright, young minds into the area of game development. Just as sites like Fark.com helped give birth to a generation of young Photoshop experts, Popfly Game Creator could help inspire a lot of creative talent.

By lowering barriers to entry and opening a compelling new flank in user-generated content, Microsoft is doing a good thing. The question is, will it lead more people to take up the study of computer science and software development?

You tell me. E-mail me at [email protected] with your thoughts.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/06/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Help for Developers

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Jeff Atwood's Coding Horror site and the contest he was holding to recognize outstanding open source development.

We talked a bit after that initial blog post and I ended up asking Jeff about his leaving Vertigo Software to launch stackoverflow.com. What should be interesting for dev managers is that the site Jeff is launching now aims to put accurate, topical and specific technical insight at the fingertips of .NET developers.

Jeff says he got the idea of launching a developer-help site from his experiences reading (and writing) dev-oriented blogs. "If you look at a lot of blogs, it's just sort of a log of, 'Here's a problem I had and here's the solution to it,'" Jeff told me.

The problem, he said, is that developers must often root around multiple places to find proposed solutions. And when they find a viable-looking suggestion, those developers are left to guess at the relative technical acumen of the site denizen providing the insight. In short, it can be a gigantic crapshoot. Stackoverflow, Jeff hopes, will change a lot of that.

Jeff has teamed with another well-known developer and blogger -- Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software fame -- to work on the stackoverflow.com project. The two are pulling their respective Web readerships and hoping to draw plenty of other coders toward the site, which Jeff said will be a "developer Q&A site with reputation systems built in."

What's interesting is that both Joel and Jeff seem committed to running a wide-open and transparent community. As Joel wrote in his blog:

"We're starting to build a programming Q&A site that's free. Free to ask questions, free to answer questions, free to read, free to index, built with plain old HTML, no fake rot13 text on the homepage, no scammy Google-cloaking tactics, no salespeople, no JavaScript windows dropping down in front of the answer asking for $12.95 to go away. You can register if you want to collect karma and win valuable flair that will appear next to your name, but otherwise, it's just free."

This doesn't sound like a half-bad idea. Do you have a favorite developer-help resource? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/01/2008 at 1:15 PM2 comments

Feedback: The Move from J2EE

On Tuesday, I wrote about BMC's new Application Problem Resolution System 7.0 tooling, which provides "black box" monitoring and analysis of application behavior to help improve troubleshooting.

In talking to BMC Director Ran Gishri, I ran across some interesting perspectives that he was able to offer on the enterprise development space. Among them, the fact that large orgs seem to be moving away from J2EE and toward a mix of .NET and sundry lightweight frameworks.

Richard Eaton, an RDN reader who's a manager of database systems for Georgia System Operations Corp., confirms Gishri's insights. He wrote:

"In 2003, we made a decision to build our Web application using Java and a third-party RAD tool for Java development that was locally supported at that time. Since then, the company that developed and supported that RAD tool has gone out of business and left us with virtually no support for the product. The application development that was done was very integrated into the tool, which meant we would virtually have to rewrite the entire app. So we analyzed our experience with using Apache, Linux, Java and Eclipse for our platform and realized the effort was very management-intensive for our small team, and so we looked to .NET.

"Considering the advances in the .NET framework and CLR libraries and the integration it offered to our other third-party tools, as well as our prolific Excel spreadsheet environment, the decision was easy to go to .NET. We are also moving away from Sybase databases to SQL Server and looking into the use of SharePoint for various internal collaboration and project functions. The one-stop shop of Microsoft technology and support and ease of development and integration, I think, is the overwhelming weight in deciding between J2EE and .NET."

Are you seeing a shift away from J2EE in enterprise development? Tell us your perspective at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 05/01/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

Talking Problems and Resolution with BMC's Ran Gishri

The job of testing and troubleshooting applications is tougher than it has ever been. At least, that's what Ran Gishri, director of global marketing at BMC Software, will tell you. As the man in charge of BMC's AppSight product line -- recently renamed BMC Application Problem Resolution System (APRS) -- Gishri often sees large development shops struggle with increasingly complex and changeable business and technology environments.

"Many of the problems are just due to change. I get the sense from 60,000 feet that everything is changing," Gishri said. "More and more companies are releasing more often. I think with all the agile methods and pressure to build more and get it out sooner and make it high-quality...all that change is really, really killing applications."

Gishri should know. BMC Application Problem Resolution System 7.0 is designed to help dev teams gather, assess and analyze information related to application troubleshooting. By automating many of the labor-intensive activities around these tasks, APRS 7.0 aims to drive down resolution times and improve application quality.

The previous version of APRS, known as AppSight 6.0, was available in distinct Windows and Java-based versions. The separate versions made it difficult to sleuth issues that occurred with software processes crossing platform lines.

"Most large enterprises have mixed applications, a mix of Java and .NET," Gishri said. "If you are a tester, operating two different consoles, it's very complex. It just didn't work. It didn't fly."

APRS 7.0 can automate problem detection and resolution across both Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE)- and .NET Framework-based infrastructures. The product also supports C++ and Visual Basic development. Gishri said BMC re-architected APRS 7.0 around a common middle tier -- derived from the Java version of AppSight 6.0 -- to drive functionality from a single platform, rather than via multiple versions of the tool.

"We know how to follow requests across platforms," Gishri said of APRS 7.0. "You will be able to play back the recorded information and follow the execution between the Windows client and Java-based server back and forth."

No surprise, Gishri has a bird's-eye view of the enterprise development market. He said he's impressed with how far Microsoft's .NET Framework has come since its initial launch, which he said was fraught with "glitches and problems." Gishri said he has noticed a lot of big companies, which once focused tightly on J2EE for enterprise deployments, shifting attention toward .NET.

"We're actually starting to see an increase in demand for .NET; we're starting to see some decrease in demand for Java Enterprise Edition. This is relatively new, only in the last 12 months," Gishri said. "Some of it is definitely moving to .NET, and some of it is moving to lighter-weight frameworks like Spring or other open source frameworks that are not that heavy or that complicated to manage, or not that expensive."

Is your dev shop moving away from J2EE toward other frameworks? And if so, why? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 04/29/2008 at 1:15 PM18 comments

Live Mesh: Microsoft's Theory of Everything

In the world of theoretical physics, the Theory of Everything is a long-sought, hypothetical model that would elegantly explain and link all known physical phenomena, from the minute and unpredictable world of quantum mechanics to the vast energies and scale that define the still-evolving study of cosmology. It would finally bind gravity into the same system as the strong nuclear, weak nuclear and electro-magnetic forces. Our whites would be whiter and our brights would be brighter.

But like so many things in life that seem almost too good to be true, the Theory of Everything has proven hard to achieve. The area of research has even had its own Cold Fusion moment when a paper written by erstwhile academic physicist and now semi-employed surfer dude A. Garrett Lisi drew attention for its exceedingly simple effort to solve the Theory of Everything.

As it happens, Microsoft is chasing its own Theory of Everything in the form of Live Mesh. The effort could help Microsoft break through long-standing boundaries that have prevented users from freely tapping their data and applications on PCs, appliances and devices of every stripe.

As RDN contributing editor John Waters reports from the Live Mesh announcement and demo at the Web 2.0 Expo this week in San Francisco, Live Mesh is a cloud-centric data synchronization and collaboration services effort that offers a consumer play on Microsoft's accelerating Software + Services (S+S) strategy.

"In a nutshell, Live Mesh allows individuals, their devices and their data to become aware of one other, and establish networks to permit file synchronization across all of it," industry analyst Neil Macehiter told Waters after the demo.

Live Mesh has been two years in the making and is widely credited to the hide-and-seek visionary genius of Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie. In fact, this launch may end up being remembered as the true beginning of the Ozzie era at Microsoft, when the company stopped talking about open systems and interoperability and really did something strategic about it.

Notably, Live Mesh promises a cross-platform development environment. Developers can craft Live Mesh-aware services and applications in Java, Flash, Ruby, Python and numerous other non-.NET languages. The Mesh Operating Environment that undergirds Live Mesh services hews to standard fare like the Atom Publishing Protocol, JSON and RSS. The universe of supported devices and hardware is expected to be diverse, as well --though today, support is limited to just Windows XP and Vista.

But let's not get carried away here. Developers can expect Visual Studio, .NET languages like C# and VB.NET, and rich Internet application (RIA) platforms like Silverlight to emerge as first-class citizens in the Live Mesh universe. What's more, as RDN columnist Greg DeMichillie writes in his latest column, which will appear in a future issue of RDN: "Once a developer builds an application on top of Live Mesh, they are beholden to Microsoft in perpetuity."

Obviously, it's very early in the Live Mesh cycle yet, and in the months to come we'll see expanding platform support. But I'll be looking forward to hearing a lot more about the direction Microsoft intends to take with what amounts to Microsoft's Theory of Everything.

What are your impressions of Live Mesh and what are some of your biggest concerns? E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 04/24/2008 at 1:15 PM1 comments

Q&A: Cyber Crime's Chief Investigator

Howard A. Schmidt has forgotten more about network and systems security than I will probably ever know. A pioneer in the area of computer forensics, he served for more than 30 years as an information security advisor to the FBI, the U.S. Air Force and the Bush administration after Sept. 11, 2001.

Recruited by Microsoft in the mid-'90s, Schmidt served as the company's first chief security officer and, in April 2001, helped launch the company's Trustworthy Computing initiative before leaving to become CSO of eBay in 2003.

Today, Schmidt is the president and CEO of R&H Security Consulting LLC. RDN Senior Editor Kathleen Richards caught up with Schmidt the week after the RSA Conference to find out where security in a Web 2.0 world is headed.

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation. You can read the entire account here.

RDN: What kind of tools should developers be using?
We have to look across the entire spectrum. We should not be asking our developers to develop software and then throw it over the fence and say, OK, Quality Assurance will find the problems with it. We should be giving the developers the tools right from the very outset to do the software scanning and the source code analysis. And that does two things. One, it helps them develop better code as they discover things through the automated scanning process on the base code itself. But it also, once it gets to Quality Assurance, gives them the ability to focus more on quality stuff, then looking at security things which you can eliminate in the first round.

The second thing, when you look at the compiled binaries and stuff like that, the way those things work, generally we look at the pen test side of the thing. We can't ignore that because that is really one of those things when you put it on the production environment, there may be other linkages somewhere that may create a security flaw in the business process while the code itself is secure.

Then clearly the third level of that is in a Web application, Web 2.0 environments, for example. Now you have the ability not just to pull information down but to interact directly -- this creates a really, really dynamic environment, and even simple things like cross-site scripting and SQL injection have to be tested for, at the end result once things are out in the wild.

You worked at Microsoft for five years and were one of the founders of its Trustworthy Computing Strategies Group. Craig Mundie outlined an "End to End Trust" model at the recent RSA conference. What's your take -- is there something new there?
I don't know that there is something new. I think it is just a continuation of the fact that there is no single point solution in any of these things in any environment. It is not a hardware solution. It is not a software solution. It is not a business process solution. It is not an identity management solution.

Does Microsoft's recent interoperability pledge change the security equation?
It does, and that's one of the things when you start looking at one of the complaints that people had over the years is the inability to write security-related APIs because they didn't know what it was going to do with the other ones. So having access to the APIs, knowing what function calls are out there, knowing how the security that you implement is going to impact that is going to once again take us a step further.

What did you find noteworthy at the recent RSA Security Conference?
As we develop greater dependency on mobile devices, the bad guys will start using unsigned applications on the mobile device to commit the next-gen of cyber crimes and we need to look at it now and build that into the phones that we will start using in the near future.

You can read the rest of this Q&A here.

What were your impressions from the RSA Security conference? And is your organization making any changes to help counter emerging threats? Email me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 04/22/2008 at 1:15 PM0 comments

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