China's own document standard: A clear message to US IT vendors?

Summary:Fresh off giving a keynote speech in Beijing during an event that was organized by the Chinese National Institution of Standardization (the CNIS), Andy Updegrove is now stateside with a report that the Chinese government has come up with its own document standard called the Uniform Office Format or UOF. Wrote Updegrove:What UOF is:  It's called the Uniform Office Format (UOF), and it's been in development since January of 2002; the first draft was completed in December of last year.

Fresh off giving a keynote speech in Beijing during an event that was organized by the Chinese National Institution of Standardization (the CNIS), Andy Updegrove is now stateside with a report that the Chinese government has come up with its own document standard called the Uniform Office Format or UOF. Wrote Updegrove:

What UOF is:  It's called the Uniform Office Format (UOF), and it's been in development since January of 2002; the first draft was completed in December of last year.  It includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation modules, and comprises GUI, format and API specifications.   Like both ODF and Office OpenXML, it is another "XML in a Zip file" format

From what I understand, UOF was developed with less compulsion to follow the lead of Microsoft Office and its fifteen years of accumulating features, allowing UOF to be simpler rather than slavishly faithful to (and therefore constrained by) what has come before.  I'm also told that the UOF format is based on existing Web standards, such as SVG...
....The development effort was supported by the Hi-Tech Research and Development Program of China, and has been recognized by key government agencies, including the Standard Administration of China, Information Office of State Council, Ministry of Information Industry, and Ministry of Science and Technology...
...There is already an effort in place to "harmonize" UOF and ODF, and from what I understand that process should be less challenging than making ODF and Office OpenXML play nicely together.  The word "harmonize" is taken from a UOF working group ballot last May, at which time the participants recommended this activity.  A draft charter for an OASIS technical committee to collaborate on such an effort can be found here...

I know a little bit about the CNIS. Back in the eary 90's when I was director at PC Week's testing labs (now eWeek), the Chinese government sent a delegation of CNIS officials to the US to learn more about hardware and software testing methodologies. Either the US government or the CNIS handpicked PC Week Labs as a place to stop. I was never clear on that. But I did have to go through a national security check. The delegation of about 4 or 5 CNIS officials, each of whom very generously came bearing gifts, arrived with a pair of Chinese security people and I spent the better part of the day talking about our approach to testing business technology. I cracked a few jokes during the day which drew laughter from the CNIS-folk. But the security guys just sat there, expressionless, the entire time.

Only one member of the delegation spoke English so a good chunk of the time was spent translating. Knowing nothing about the CNIS, I had questions of my own and when I asked about the organization's role, I was told that it sets information technology standards. Naturally, I thought they meant for the many Chinese government agencies. But I was wrong. I remember the only English speaker saying "No, for all of Chinese."  I remember gulping and asking "You set standards for the entire country?" The answer was yes. It was only a couple of years before that that I was an IT manager setting corporate PC standards for a community of 13,000 administrative users at the University of Miami (not including students).  And doing that was a challenge given how many people wanted to do their own thing. So, imagine setting standards for over a billion people? Yeah. I know. It sounds ludicrous. But, best as it can, that is one of the CNIS' charters (not that everyone in China goes along).

So, the CNIS is a pretty powerful political organization over there and given that China's population is more than four times that if the USA's (we just crossed the 300 million mark), you can't help but think that the world is a really big place that, as a whole, can't tolerate things like proprietary file formats or specific vendor agendas. Left to its own devices (which was the case back in 2002 when no standard file formats existed) and in an effort to guarantee long term survival (in this case, of documents) it will evolve independently of what any single vendor wants it to do. Not only that, the world is full of governments like the one in China that may solicit feedback from IT vendors, but whose political processes remain largely closed to any attempts to manipulate business decisions.

Looking back on how file formats were being debated on Beacon Hill (Massachusett's equivalent of Capitol Hill) while the cast of involved characters were making front page news in Boston's newspapers, there's absolutely no question that vendors were the muscle on both sides of the debate. I've always found it to be ironic that on one day, a state senator (Mark Pacheco) was inspecting a dam that was threatening to break and flood a local town and then the next, he was presiding over a hearing regarding what file formats the Commonwealth of Massachusetts should be using for its documents.  Maybe he knows something about dams. But he was clearly out of his league as he, and the "witnesses" he had lined up regurgitated sheer FUD.

I'm all for democracy. But if a small government like the one in Massachusetts can bring IT vendors to their knees (over the long run, vendors on both sides of the debate have had to address Massachusetts' concerns), imagine what a big one like China's -- one whose process is less open to lobbyists and other forms of paid influence (and also less open to American technology dominance) -- can do.

The world is a big place. Surviving in it will mean going along with it. The fact that UOF will be harmonized with ODF (per what Updegrove has learned) means that if Microsoft or any other vendor wants to participate more frictionlessly in the Chinese market, it will have to provide better than arms-length support for UOF/ODF. And coming up with more geographically specific SKUs as a means of insulating the American market from the IT policies and market forces of other countries is another path of futility. There are SKUs in Europe that are tuned to antitrust decisions there. There are SKUs in impovershed countries that are tuned to market conditions there (which, if you ask me, will probably get marginalized by Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project). How much farther down that path can any IT vendor go before the cost of managing such complexity wipes out the gains it was designed to fuel?

Related: The OpenDocument Format Alliance has issued a press release that points to several international studies that calculate the money that could be saved by adopting ODF. Said the release:

The Alliance also posted a summary of a variety of studies that quantify the potential cost savings of adopting office software based on ODF. The studies range from a Danish analysis predicting a $94 million (US) savings over five years, to a Dutch study anticipating savings of 90 percent in a migration to an ODF-supporting application. The Alliance expects that these case studies and cost analyses will be instrumental for governments taking a closer look at the benefits of the format. 

Topics: China

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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