Open XML versus ODF—Redmond's Latest Move

The Document Format Wars heated up this week with news that Microsoft has joined a group closely involved in approving ISO standards—a move the Redmond software maker says was intended to facilitate ratification of its own Open XML format, but which proponents of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) fear is designed to delay approval of that rival standard.

The group Microsoft joined (V1 Text Processing: Office and Publishing Systems Interface group), is a very small subcommittee made of member companies within the International Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS). V1 is the subcommittee that deals with office document formats, and is, in fact, charged with reconciling the votes cast for ISO adoption of the OASIS-developed ODF. Microsoft is a long-time member of OASIS, which is a global consortium that develops data representation standards for use in computer software. But the company decided not to support the ODF, nor has it been involved in the ODF Technical Committee.

This file format standards rivalry is shaping up to be a real David-and-Goliath contest. According to analysts at Gartner, Microsoft owns more than 95 percent of the office applications market. And its closest competitor in market share (at least in word processing), Corel, currently has no plans to support the ODF. To my knowledge, the only office suites that support the ODF are Sun Microsystem's StarOffice, and the free OpenOffice.org.

So I think it's fair to pause here and ask the question: If Microsoft has submitted its latest file format to a standards group—even the reputedly compliant Ecma—does the fate of the ODF really matter?

''That file format may be XML, but it's actually just a serialization of their internal data structures, so that their product has an inherent time-to-market advantage over everybody else,'' Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer, told reporters last month during a company chalk talk. ''What they are doing is getting the product-implementation file format rubber-stamped. That's a recipe for a single-vendor-controlled format.''

That charge doesn't make sense to Microsoft's Brian Jones, lead program manager for the Office suite, who reminded me recently that his company has given Open XML away. ''That's the revolutionary thing,'' he said. ''The formats are no longer Microsoft formats; they are controlled by an international standards body. That they happen to be based on, and fully compatible with, our legacy binary format just helps to get rid of any existing user pain.''

Again, I have to ask: Why should we care whether we end up with the OASIS standard or Microsoft's? Why not just let the company whose productivity apps are used by damned near everyone set the standard?

One reason, says attorney Andrew Updegrove, is that nothing is forever, not even Microsoft. Updegrove is one of the most outspoken and oft-quoted supporters of the ODF. He's a partner at the Boston law firm of Gesmer Updegrove, and the creator of Consortiuminfo.org, an information site covering standards, standard setting, and open-source software.

''It's a mistake to imagine that we have this immortal guarantor of these file formats,'' Updegrove observes. ''Who could have imagined a world without Arthur Anderson? I’m a technology lawyer, and the idea that Arthur Anderson might some day not exist… well, five years ago I would have said the odds were ten thousand to one against that happening in my lifetime. They had been in business since 1913, and now they're gone. Look at Microsoft’s anti-trust worries. Could the company get broken up? Sure it could.''

Whether or not we think the ODF matters, it's pretty clearly that Microsoft does. The timing of the company's recent actions—its decision to send Open XML to a standards body a month after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced plans to phase out use of proprietary formats for storing government documents and switch to the ODF; the latest INCITS subcommittee news—strike me as counter punches.

It would be easy to blow off this very lopsided rivalry, but that would be a mistake, too. This is about something basic: access to information. It's about making sure that corporations, educational institutions, libraries, and individuals have long-term access to their documents, free of the restrictions of proprietary software or the limitations of outdated technologies. It's clear that we do need a standard, and that no single vendor should control something so fundamental.

If you're interested in this issue (and everybody should be), you'll want to check out Pamela Jones's blog at Groklaw.net. Jones was among the first to draw attention to the news that Microsoft had joined the INCITS subcommittee.

Also, be sure to visit Andrew Updegrove's blog. Updegrove has been holding forth on this and related standards issues for ages, and his blog is not only chock full of opinions, but it provides a historical context and insights into the stultifyingly complex world of global standard setting that is virtually unavailable anywhere else.

BTW—The members of INCITS V1 are:

  • Microsoft Corporation
  • Patrick Durusau Inc
  • Retrieval Systems Corporation
  • Sun Microsystems Inc
  • Text Structure Consulting
  • XML Factor Inc
  • Y-12 National Security Complex

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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