Microsoft and IBM Face Off Again Over Doc Formats

Mom, they’re arguing again.

Who? Microsoft and IBM, of course.

The latest dust up swirls around a Microsoft four-page open letter published on the Web on Valentine’s Day that accuses IBM of trying to block users’ choice when it comes to document formats.

Indeed, Microsoft lashed out in response to IBM’s efforts to scuttle progress of its Office Open XML (OOXML) formats in a key European standards body.

“A lot of hype – and smoke and mirrors obfuscation -- surrounds interoperability these days,” Microsoft’s letter begins.

The spat is just the latest development in a continuing fracas between Microsoft and its rivals over formats for office applications. IBM, as well as Sun Microsystems, have argued that the proprietary nature of Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) long term threatens users’ access to their own documents and that constitutes a threat to open access.

Microsoft has, in fact, been working towards greater interoperability between its OOXML formats and OpenDocument Format (ODF) that IBM and other leading Redmond competitors have been sponsoring. Just last week, it announced availability of an open source ODF translator add-in for Word 2007 that it sponsored through SourceForge, with plans to implement Excel and PowerPoint add-ins by the end of November.

Sun took the wraps off its own ODF to Word translator last week.

Microsoft has been trying to route OOXML through various European standards organization, including Ecma International and ISO. The company succeeded in getting ECMA approval in December. However, it has hit roadblocks with ISO consideration, thanks in part to IBM’s efforts.

IBM, meanwhile, has been working both publicly and behind the scenes, to undermine Microsoft’s efforts to achieve adoption of its formats as standards. That’s what set off the latest tussle.

“On December 7th, ECMA approved the adoption of Open XML as an international open standard. The vote was nearly unanimous; of the 21 members, IBM’s was the sole dissenting vote. IBM again was the lone dissenter when Ecma also agreed to submit Open XML as a standard for ratification by ISO/IEC JTC1,” Microsoft’s letter said.

It continues: “IBM led a global campaign urging national bodies to demand that ISO/IEC JTC1 not even consider Open XML, because ODF had made it through ISO/IEC JTC1 first . . . . This campaign to stop even the consideration of Open XML in ISO/IEC JTC1 is a blatant attempt to use the standards process to limit choice in the marketplace for ulterior commercial motives – and without regard for the negative impact on consumer choice and technological innovation.”

The letter was signed by two senior Microsoft managers -- Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards, and Jean Paoli, general manager of interoperability and XML architecture.

Meanwhile, ODF, also sometimes referred to as “OpenDoc,” reached certification by the ISO last May.

Interestingly, as the positioning and repositioning regarding the language used to discuss standardization efforts has evolved, Microsoft has sought to downplay the fact that Office Open XML its own proprietary format. Until now, the company has steadfastly referred to the formats with the Office brand attached. However, in the open letter to IBM, that has become a more generic, more open-sounding “Open XML.”

And where the IBM camp has consistently hammered on user “choice” in regard to ODF, now Microsoft reframing IBM’s efforts as attempts to limit users’ “choice” -– never mind that the Office file formats are clearly well-established de facto standards worldwide already.

Microsoft’s full open letter is available here.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services,, and .NET magazines. Contact him at [email protected].