Microsoft’s ecosystem: cracks in the reliability

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The microsoft ecosystem is often mentioned to be long term reliable and therefore be a good option for companies with long term plans or needs. However, recently some parts of Microsoft’s ecosystem fall apart and became incompatible, which is not what you expect from a reliable system.

The Microsoft ecosystem consists of thousands of services and applications provided by 3rd parties. However, the foundation of this system is provided by Microsoft’s services, applications and it’s Operating System. When these are suddenly not reliable anymore the ecosystem is suddenly not stable at all.
And there have been three large cracks in the near past which should make everyone worry who bases his or her IT on Microsoft’s products: PlayForSure, Outlook Express/Hotmail, and to some degree even OOXML.

PlayForSure

PlayForSure (DRM codename: Janus) was introduced by Microsoft in 2004/2005 to mark players which have been certified to follow Microsoft’s dream list: Windows Media Player compatibility, DRM support, MTP-only support, and so on. Originally this was also an attempt to push Ogg Vorbis out of the field.
The basic idea was that every player could be used on any Windows System which had Windows Media Player 10 installed. And that every player would play any music sold in any PlayForSure store.

The shortcoming for the user would be that the players and music wouldn’t work outside of this system (Apple, Linux, Windows 2000, Windows XP without the WMP 10, etc., other MP3 players). And if the user wanted to switch to a new computer, he/she had to re-download a licence for the new computer. That’s a usual problem with DRM, but is important in this regard.

So the ecosystem was built up, and almost every new MP3 player on the market was certified against PlayForSure. Millions of songs were presumably sold to probably millions of users.

But then Microsoft decided that PlayForeSure is not as cool as the iPod, and published an iPod enemy, the Zune. But since the Zune had to be Microsoft-Only it wasn’t Play Fore sure. The ecosystem got it’s first crack. And then Microsoft thought that having two systems was a bit confusing and closed down PlayForSure at the end of 2006. In the future the label “Certified for Microsoft Windows Vista” is supposed to replace PlayForSure. But while that certificate has some elements of the former PlayForSure it – for example – requires Windows Vista and has other, additional requirements. It is a new logo.

What we have now is a broken ecosystem. And that although most of Microsoft’s partners relied on the availability of PlayForSure – many of them still advertise their products as PlayForSure certified.
So now we have hardware vendors who have to push out a new line of players which can be certified against the new logo. All their old devices now depreciate because they are not certifed against the new logo.
And we have the webshops which sold PlayForSure music. Many of their customers for sure still use Windows XP – which is of course not Vista ready. They are left alone a bit.
Last but not least we have the customers: music which was bought with PlayForSure needs licence upgrades to work on a new computer. Since these licence upgrades will not be provided after PlayForeSure’s shut down the music is essentially worthless. Think of millions of songs here – think of millions of dollars/euros here!

Outlook Express and Hotmail

Outlook Express is an e-mail client shipped with all Microsoft versions since Windows 98 and before Windows Vista. Although it was responsible for many large scaled virus attacks and spreads due to a horrible security concept and had many more, other technical shortcomings and problems it was widely used. And it was of course often used with Microsoft’s own E-Mail service, Hotmail.

However, recently Microsoft decided that the old protocol used for the communication between Outlook Express and Hotmail wasn’t what they would prefer. They wanted to switch every user to the new DeltaSync – and so they decided to drop Outlook Express support in Hotmail. As a resultyou will not be able to use Outlook Express together with Hotmail in the future any more. Instead, you have to upgrade to Windows Live – if you can, because currently it does not support Windows XP 64 or Win2k3. Also, if you used to use another client, that one will also not work anymore.

To summarizes: as a user who relied on Microsoft’s in house e-mail technology you are screwed.

OOXML

The last problem is still in development, and the outcome is not really clear at the moment. But the root of the problem is ISO’s adoption of OOXML.
Originally published by Microsoft to have a pseudo-standard which is very hard to support for other software vendors, the ISO adoption process became necessary because no one was interested in not officially standardized formats by Microsoft.

So OOXML went through the ISO process, and got several comments where it has to be reworked – Microsoft could have avoided this by working together with others right from the beginning! In the end the new format was accepted as a standard. But the necessary revision of the format resulted in a non-compatible Microsoft Office:

Such a test is only indicative, of course, but a few tentative conclusions can be drawn:

  • Word documents generated by today’s version of MS Office 2007 do not conform to ISO/IEC 29500
  • Making them conform to the STRICT schema is going to require some surgery to the (de)serialisation code of the application
  • Making them conform to the TRANSITIONAL will require less of the same sort of surgery (since they’re quite close to conformant as-is)

Given Microsoft’s proven ability to tinker with the Office XML file format between service packs, I am hoping that MS Office will shortly be brought into line with the 29500 specification, and will stay that way.

I’ve included the last part (emphasis not by me) to make the point of view of the poster clear. He thinks/hopes that MS will update the Office suite soon (an ODF test suite can be found here, btw.). However, Microsoft haven’t published any time frame, schedule or plan yet about such an update.

So in the end Microsoft first created an ecosystem around its new file Office Suite and on full purpose introduced a file format which would never become an ISO standard in that form – to afterwards apply for the said standard and change the file format again. As a result Microsoft Office 2007 still is not compatible to the new OOXML version itself atm.

Every organization and every software vendor who already jumped on the OOXML train before the ISO changes therefore has now to reconsider the software strategy: it should prepare for the switch to the updated OOXML – but also wait with it because it is unclear when the switch in MS Office will come.

However, preparing such a big update and keeping it ready consumes quite some resources. And small software vendors might not have these resources. Additionally, even smaller vendors which only had the resources to accept the new file format once are screwed.

And of course we have the users: everyone who tried to base a long-time backup solution on top of the old OOXML is screwed as well and should re-build the entire update again with the new OOXML.

Final words

The main problem behind these cracks in Microsoft’s ecosystem is of course the lack of well proved, open standards. But since Microsoft is not willing to support standards, the cracks are there now, and they are huge.

Of course from Microsoft’s point of view all these things make totally sense: everyone who strictly follows Microsoft as close as possible (use Vista only, etc.) and is ready to lose quite some money once in a while (because the music must be bought again and again or similar) will survive all these changes.

So to summarize the problem with respect to Microsoft’s position: problems only occur where users don’t have money to waste or want to have choice. Microsoft does not want the user to choose anything. The user is there to consume, not to choose – or actually think. This is best expressed by a comment from Omar Shahine, one of Microsoft’s Lead Program Managers, who tried to explain the Outlook Express/Hotmail development:

What we didn’t want to do is offer POP access and then have […] customers use POP over DeltaSync.

If customers decide to stay with a product despite you offer them a new one – that means the customers prefer the product. Usually a company has to stick with such things in the real world.

However, Microsoft thinks it knows better. Microsoft forces it’s users against any opposition. And against any possible casualties on the consumers side.

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24 thoughts on “Microsoft’s ecosystem: cracks in the reliability

  1. The word is LOSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Loose is the opposite of tight, LOSE is the opposite of win!

  2. I read the entire article, yet all I recall now is …

    Blah blah blah blah – companies with long-term plans – blah blah blah – consumer products that no business with long-term plans should use – blah blah blah – a version of office released before OOXML was accepted doesn’t yet work with a new document format – blah blah blah – I HATE MICROSOFT!

    Is that about right?

  3. (dont feed the trollish short therm memory ms fanboy up here, there may be a correlation between his broken memory and his ms intense love)

    Well this article made 3 big points about past and future loss of monney (and time) for customer and business which loves ‘too much but not enouth’ ms, I feel sorry for them ;)

  4. Also, IE7 and IE8 breaking web applications. I ran into this the other day with an ActiveX web app that only works in IE6.

    They’re making the right decision now (conforming to web standards), but the incompatiblity fiasco could have been avoided if they had just done so from the outset.

  5. blah, no. This was an analysis of some problems inside the Microsoft eco system which recently surfaced.

    How is that to be related with any emotions for or against Microsoft?

  6. Good read. This is why I ditched Windows. Well, actually, I made the switch before all this stuff happened, but still…

  7. Actually… I think most of MS software is bad and bloated BECAUSE they always tend to keep compatibility with older versions.
    Vista is full of compatibility code and specific hacks (even per application hacks) for keeping the compatibility with NT4, win9x etc…

    If they begin to ditch old stuff, imho that IS a good thing for them… if they want to evolve.
    (for a brief comparison, look how kicker applets run fine on plasma ;) )

  8. Well written, nice analysis. I already knew about OOXML and Outlook Express/Hotmail, because I follow tech news websites closely. However, the situation with PlaysForSure DRM is new for me, it’s outrageous that MS simply gives it’s customers the finger. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen this news on other important news sites yet.

  9. There are two different things:
    The first one is downwards compatibility, the second one is dropping support for a service on purpose without technical need.
    Of course kicker applets cannot be used on Plasma. But kicker is still alive, and will be for the next years. KDE 3.5.x is not dead, and you are not *forced* to update to KDE 4.
    The Hotmail/OE thing however is about services – and about the fact that suddenly is service is killed without a real reason behind that. A comparable thing would be if suddenly Get Hot New Stuff would be stopped for KDE 3.x apps tomorrow. Speaking about that, it will be interesting to see when this one will be let down.

    Alexander: As I wrote the PFS was closed down late 2006 – the real news is here only that the licences will not be renewed after mid 2008 – and that news got around, and was picked up by the bigger news companies afaik.

  10. cracks? reliability? MS?

    theyve had 2 decades of reliably producing unreliable products!

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