Thursday, January 25, 2007

How Not to Improve Your Image

What's a poor monopoly to do?

Today, Microsoft Corporation, has been lambasted all over the Web for offering to pay--some say "bribe"--an Australia-based geek named Rick Jelliffe to edit Wikipedia entries involving Microsoft products.

Wikipedia, for anyone who doesn't know, is a multilingual online encyclopedia that works as a wiki, which is to say its entries can be edited by anyone at any time. Well, not really--more about that in a minute.

At issue are two competing document standards, OpenDocument format, an open source format and Microsoft Office Open XML, created to compete with it. Jelliffe, who has edited Wikipedia entries before, and wrote The XML & SGML Cookbook, is a standards expert whose thoughts on the subject would likely be respected.

OK, it does sound kinda like bribery, doesn't it? But wait, consider this: Microsoft claims some aspects of the Wikipedia entries on the standards are inaccurate. And Jelliffe says he did indeed find anti-MS inaccuracies as soon as he looked for them (and before accepting any money). And, unlike any other Wikipedia user, Microsoft representatives aren't allowed to edit entries about Microsoft. Conflict of interest, says Wikipedia's mostly volunteer editorial staff. (Given the general attitude about MS, especially in some corners of the geek world, I should probably pause here to say that this is not a Microsoft-specific rule: Wikipedia disallows users in general from posting about their own organizations, or their competitors.)

It's worth noting that Microsoft apparently wasn't looking for a mouthpiece, but an "independent but friendly" industry expert. According to press reports, MS would pay Jelliffe no matter what he posted, and would not review the material beforehand. So...seriously, folks, what else is a poor defenseless monopoly to do when wrong information is posted in a very public forum and it's not allowed to make corrections on its own behalf?

Wikipedia officials had two alternate suggestions:

1) Write a whitepaper correcting the error and post a link to it on Wikipedia. Yeah right. Raise your hand if you've ever clicked on a link to a whitepaper. Me neither.

Or...

2) Contribute lots of money to Wikipedia, thus earning its goodwill. But wait, isn't the idea here to avoid bribery? Besides, it wouldn't work--no amount of money will ever make some geeks stop hating Microsoft.

Bill, for instance, without knowing much more about OOXML than I do, is highly skeptical that anything bad posted about Microsoft could have been inaccurate. But then, he and his Linux evangelist friends refer to Microsoft as "The Evil Empire," so they may not be completely unbiased.

In fact, Wikipedia itself may not really be unbiased, if you think about it.

Wikipedia was created and is expanded and maintain largely by a volunteer effort open to all and shared among writers and editors all over the world. The biggest threat to Microsoft is open-source software which...was created and is expanded and maintained largely by a volunteer effort open to all and shared among coders all over the world. Do you think the editors of Wikipedia may have a preference between the owner/licensed vs. open-to-all ways of creating things? Not that I disagree with their preference--I love the idea of wikis and open-source development myself. But I can see how Microsoft might not get a fair deal from this crowd.

Two other comments. First, it's interesting to note how completely Microsoft's effort at public relations backfired with this maneuver. Instead of having a few developers think there might be drawbacks to Open XML, the Web at large is now reading headlines about Microsoft's attempt at bribery. I bet whoever made the offer is wishing he or she had stayed in bed.

The other comment is this: The reason the story broke was not that Microsoft announced its offer to the world, or that some intrepid reporter dug it up. The only reason the world knows about the pay-for-Wikipedia-edit scandal is that Jelliffe himself posted an item about it on the O'Reilly web site blog.

Which raises the question: Was he really the first ever to receive this offer? And was Microsoft really the only company ever to make it? Or are there lots of Wikipedia entries, Amazon customer reviews and who knows what else out there on the Web that seem independent, but really were bought and paid for?

Scary thought, isn't it?




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