SOMEWHERE IN THE PACIFIC--The LCD monitor inside the Northwest Airlines flight that I'm taking says we're 36,000 feet above this vast ocean. I'm on my way back to the Philippines after taking a side trip to San Francisco from a press coverage in Washington, United States.
My itinerary says it will take our aircraft about 11 hours to reach Japan's Narita airport, from San Francisco. After a three-hour layover, another four-hour trip will finally bring me to Manila.
A few days back, a fellow journalist from the Philippines and I took a slightly different route going to the United States. We landed directly at the Seattle-Tacoma airport to attend a press briefing by software giant Microsoft, in the nearby cities of Kirkland and Redmond.
Why am I telling you this? Well, I'd like to think that Microsoft is going out of its way to reach out to technology journalists from the far corners of the world, to argue its case in what has become a very contentious issue in the IT industry.
The case at bar is Microsoft's promotion, on behalf of its partners supporting it, of a document format called Office Open XML (OOXML). I'll try to explain the significance of this thing in the way I understood it.
Right now, if you create a document, say, in Microsoft Word and save it as a Word document, there's no way for you to open that file--and retain the document's original formats--except using Microsoft Word, which is part of Microsoft Office suite. It is encrypted in such a way that if you try to open it usingNotepad, for example, you'll get a garbled and useless heap of characters.
With OOXML, one can use Notepad or just about any productivity software like Microsoft's rival OpenOffice, to open a file that's saved in Microsoft Word document. OOXML, Microsoft says, is backward-compatible and future-proof...meaning, it can open all previous and future versions of Microsoft document formats.
Microsoft developed the OOXML format and submitted it to ECMA, the European ICT standards body, which then approved it.
But to make it truly a global standard, the format was sent for approval by the ISO and IEC (International Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission). This is where the process hit a snag, with the OOXML failing to get the required number of votes to be ISO-certified.
The Philippines is one of the countries that voted "no", which partly explains why we were invited to attend the press briefing.
The main argument against OOXML is that there's already an existing document format called ODF (Open Document Format), which is primarily pushed by open source supporters such as IBM and Sun Microsystems, and adopted by governments including Malaysia and Japan.
Microsoft countered, however, that the ODF does not guarantee future support for documents made in Microsoft format. This, the company says, isn't quite fair since the bulk of documents today are created on Microsoft Office format.
Besides, there shouldn't only be one document format, says Microsoft. In the technology world alone, multiple standards exist or have existed...JPEG and TIF, VHS and Betamax, HD-DVD and Blu-ray, and so on.
What ought to be done, the software vendor stresses, is to let the market decide which format is better in addressing the needs of the consumers. The operative words that Microsoft uses to define OOXML are "choice" and "interoperability"--traits that cannot be said of the ODF, the software giant points out.
In that press briefing in Kirkland, I have never seen Microsoft so passionate about collaborative work--quite different from the industry behemoth that is so used in having its way.
I mentioned earlier that Microsoft lost the initial round of balloting at the ISO/IEC level. However, there's still a final round voting to be carried out in February, that will ultimately decide its fate.
Although Microsoft is trying hard to have the ISO/IEC ratify the format, the company says an adverse ruling on the issue will not change its position to use and push it as the de facto standard since most documents are already in OOXML format, through Microsoft Office, anyway.
Well, it seems that this thing is still far from over. It would be interesting to see how this issue will unravel come February.
Just a last word on this...
While I admire the work done by the open source community in influencing Microsoft to take this collaborative approach, I believe the latter has also made a good stand in advocating the need to allow the industry to choose the format that they deem best for their needs.