Microsoft Word, Standards, and the Shoe Event Horizon

The late, great Douglas Adams posited the Shoe Event Horizon

…when depressed, people tend to look down, and when they look down, they see their shoes. To cheer themselves up, they might buy themselves a new pair. Thus, in a generally depressed society, demand for shoes will rise.

In the critical condition, demand for shoes rises faster than the capacity to make good quality footwear. As shoe quality decreases, the demand increases further because shoes wear out faster and need to be replaced more often; as the demand for shoes increases, cheap mass production causes shoe quality to drop even more. What results is a spiral of increasing shoe demand and decreasing shoe quality. Eventually, this destabilises the economy to the point where it is “no longer economically viable to build anything other than shoe shops”, and planetary society collapses.

The effects of which are described:

Originally the bird people were ground dwellers, but gradually the planet was taken over by the shoe shops of the Dolmansaxlil Shoe Corporation, apparently thanks to the shoe shop intensifier ray deployed by the corporation in order to keep the populace buying more and more poorly made and ill-fitting shoes.

Eventually, the “shoe event horizon” was reached, whereby all of the shops on the planet were shoe shops that sold impossible-to-wear shoes. The result was economic collapse, ruin, and famine — the survivors evolved into birds and vowed never to walk on the ground again.

The guide later reveals that the shoe shop intensifier ray “is, in actuality, a phony, designed to make Dolmansaxlil executives feel they are doing something excitingly aggressive, when in fact all they need to do is wait“.

Microsoft – and other companies, but I am primarily interested in MS here – realises what I also have spoken about elsewhere, that in a market where the features of a wordprocessor are a commodity (eg: OpenOffice) the critical new battlefield is control of the object’s internal format specification: DOC vs ODF, WMA vs MP3 vs AAC, PDF vs XPS. [thanks chris for that last one]

Following the Shoe Event Horizon theory, Microsoft aims to spend several years (decades?) tweaking and revving the OOXML standard, so that various implementations are all subtly wrong and have poor interoperability, so that for the sake of a quiet life the consumers will buy (and keep buying) the latest copy of MS-Word, thus propping up MS’s revenue.

Thus the importance of controlling the standard; alas there are side-effects such as this which I got from Tim Bray’s Twitter feed:

One of the more egregious behaviors observed in the recent vote on OOXML was the sudden and last minute surge to join not only various National Bodies just before they voted on OOXML, but also the relevant committee of ISO/IEC for the same purpose. At the latter level, not one but two unusual membership changes occurred. During the voting period, more and more countries joined SC 34, the committee within ISO/IEC’s Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC1) that addresses document formats, at the Observer (O) level. Then, in the final weeks and days before the voting closed, many of these new members as well as many longer term members suddenly upgraded their status to Principal ((P) membership, thereby gaining greater influence in the final vote under the complex rules under which the committee operates (those rules are described in detail here).

SC 34 is one of the more important and active committees in JTC1, and has a constant stream of standards under active consideration and balloting. In anticipation of the OOXML vote, its membership surged — with 23 new National Body members, and the number of P members spiking by 11. When almost all of the new members voted for adoption (most of those countries that were long term members voted against adoption, with comments), many felt that the standard setting process had been abused.

But unfortunately, the damage has not stopped there: since the OOXML ballot closed on September 2, not a single ballot has received enough votes to count in this important committee. Why? Because the last minute arrivals to SC 34 are not bothering to vote.

The resulting gridlock of this committee was as predictable as it is unfortunate. The extraordinarily large number of upgrades in the final months, and particularly in the final days, therefore seemed attributable not to an abiding investment and interest in the work of SC 34, but in the outcome of a single standards vote. That conclusion is now certain, given the voting performance of the upgraded members since they cast their votes on OOXML.

The specific problem arises from the rules under which JTC1 committees operate, which are intended to ensure that specifications do not become official standards unless there is sufficient interest in them, as well as adequate review, to merit issuance as global standards. One of those rules is that at every balloting stage, at least 50% of the P members eligible to vote must in fact return a ballot. Even this requirement, however, does not set a high bar, because a member is permitted to return a ballot of “Abstain” and inadequate review to form an opinion is accepted as a valid reason to abstain. As a result, returning a vote of “abstain” constitutes at best only the most minimal level of good citizenship.

Sadly, even that level of citizenship has been lacking in the newly upgraded members, whose numbers have dramatically raised the number or P members required to vote in order to advance a standard towards final approval. While I’m told that 90% of committee votes have achieved the necessary 50% return in the past, the current numbers tell a far different story: the three most recent (SC 34 N 870, SC 34 872 and SC 34 N 874) have all failed because of P member apathy.

…or, in short:

  1. committee to vote on important matter which is strategic to large company
  2. committee suddenly gets packed with yes-men, one cannot imagine who’s funding them
  3. committee vote fails anyway — but is a close-run thing
  4. yes-men all spontaneously get bored and walk away from their commitments
  5. committee becomes dead in water due to voting procedure requiring input from now-vanished yes-men
  6. committee dies?

I suppose this is light collateral damage compared to Adams’ Shoe Event Horizon sufferers, who cursed their feet and evolved into birds so as never to walk again.

MS had better look out though – perhaps we’ll all learn to live without wordprocessors, and fly away likewise.

5 Replies to “Microsoft Word, Standards, and the Shoe Event Horizon”

  1. This discussion reminds me of something I recently read on Bex Huff’s blog, “…ECMA, JSR, Oasis, and the W3C can collectively suck an egg for all I care. Those committees don’t innovate: they merely bully and claim credit for those who do. They’re accountants and lawyers, not creators. Gimme a well-documented API over clunky, overengineered, committee driven, ill-conceived “standards” anyday…”

    All of this comes under the general heading of “working and playing well with others.” I find it deeply disturbing from both the angle that the standards processes can become so completely diluted, diverted and obfuscated, and the angle that influential sectors of our communities feel so disenfranchised by the processes that they refuse to participate. How depressing.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but my fantasy is a Web 2.0 social networking answer to convoluted governance models. Something like that solution for our “best government money can buy” here in the States would be nice too. Damn, that was good, where’s that crack pipe.

  2. Hi Alec, great post. Scary to see Microsoft starting to play with “open” standards.

    Being an audio-freak and a german, let me add that the “WMA vs. MP3 vs. AAC” part should really be “WMA vs. MP3 & AAC”.

    AAC is indeed an open standard. It’s part of the MPEG-4 ISO standard, you can’t be more standardized than that. Even Fraunhofer IIS, the inventors of MP3, treat AAC as the legitimate successor to MP3, as you can see on their projects webpage, letter “A”:

    The sad part is that Apple has added their own proprietary DRM extensions to AAC in order to be able to partner with the music industry by assuring them copy-protection for the songs in the iTunes music store. That, and Apples marketing-machine leads the consumer to believe that AAC was proprietary to Apple, which it isn’t.

    So, AAC is all good and it delivers better audio quality than MP3 at lower bitrates and if you encode for yourself, there’s no nasty DRM to deal with, plus it is now supported by all relevant media players, not just iPods.

    And yes, WMA stays evil :).


    P.S.: Oh, and let me add DirectX vs. OpenGL and Silverstorm & Flash vs. JavaFX Script to the list as well :).

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