Microsoft's standardisation move divides experts

Summary:Some observers are unhappy that Microsoft is trying to get its Office 12 file formats passed by a European standards group, but others see merits in the plan

Industry observers have expressed concern about Microsoft's decision to submit the file formats for its new Office 12 applications to ECMA International, a European standards body.

The software giant said on Monday that the creation of a fully documented standard submission derived from the formats, called Microsoft Office Open XML, is likely to take about a year.

But Gary Barnett, a research director at analyst firm Ovum, said on Tuesday he doubted that the move would result in the format becoming "truly open".

"It's a tactical move by Microsoft to give its proprietary document formats a glimmer of openness," Barnett claimed. He added that Microsoft is only entitled to describe its file formats as open if it "gives up control of its formats to a standards body that is accessible".

If Microsoft maintains control over its XML-based file format it will be able to arbitrarily change the standard when it wants, enabling it to keep ahead of any competitors that wish to implement the standard, according to Barnett.

Mark Taylor, executive director of the Open Source Consortium, agreed that Microsoft's move was not as open as it might first appear. He said that Microsoft appears to want to extend its "Office monopoly into the XML age. If the intention is to really play nicely with others in the open standards game, then why patent applications in this area?"

But other industry observers were less critical of Microsoft's move, which follows the growing popularity of the OpenDocument format.

"I think it's great to see that the current discussions have forced Microsoft to be more open," said James Governor, an analyst from RedMonk.

However, Governor pointed out that it was not clear whether any standard approved by ECMA would be compatible with the GPL.

The British Library has also lauded Microsoft's move, saying in a statement that it would help it fulfil its "core responsibility of making our digital collections accessible for generations to come."

So far, Microsoft has refused to support OpenDocument in its software, which Barnett and Taylor believe raises questions about its commitment to open standards.

"The OpenDocument format is a genuinely open format that is managed in a completely transparent way. Any company in this business that is genuine about open standards should be supporting that," said Barnett.

"The existing standard places no restrictions whatsoever on who may implement it, and one has to continue asking the question why Microsoft won't," said Taylor of OpenDocument. "If the Microsoft standard really is genuinely open in the same sense as the OpenDocument format, what advantage is there to Microsoft in trying to impose their standard over the established one?"

Governor suggested that OpenDocument may have an advantage over the Microsoft standard through wider adoption by software makers, but he said this is unlikely to prevent Microsoft Office Open XML from becoming widespread.

"If we're talking about multiple implementations, OpenDocument has a clear advantage," said Governor. "From a government perspective the kind of conversations that OpenDocument can have with the public sector will be somewhat more compelling, but Microsoft has shown itself to be very persuasive at selling to the public sector. Also, there are massive advantages in incumbency."

Topics: Operating Systems

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