Earlier this week, Microsoft Office standards chief Jim Thatcher quietly announced that Microsoft would add ”two additional formats for use: Strict Open XML and Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2. … [and] support for opening PDF documents so they can be edited within Word and saved to any supported format.” It took Microsoft long enough.
As Andrew 'Andy' Updegrove, a founding partner of Gesmer Updegrove, a top technology law firm and standards expert points out, this “brings a degree of closure to a seven year long epic battle between some of the largest technology companies in the world. The same saga pitted open source advocates against proprietary vendors, and for the first time brought the importance of technical standards to the attention of millions of people around the world, and at the center of the action were Microsoft and IBM, the latter supported by Google and Oracle, among other allies.
Updegrove continued, “More specifically, the battle had been joined between the supporters of the Open Document Format – ODF for short – developed by OASIS, and then adopted by ISO/IEC, and a format developed and promoted by Microsoft, called Open XML, which it contributed to ECMA for adoption before also being submitted to ISO/IEC. In due course, Open XML was adopted as well, but only after a global battle that, improbably, even inspired a public protest on the sidewalks outside a standards committee meeting.”
The battle was largely over Microsoft's desire to control “open” document standards. In the end, both ODF and Open XML were recognized as standards. Today, ODF is the default format in the main open-source office suites: LibreOffice and OpenOffice. Ironically, it's taken Microsoft more than six years to fully support its own 4,000 plus pages of the Open XML standard , never mind PDF and ODF.
As Updegrove wrote, “Famously, however, after expending such great effort to secure adoption of Open XML as a global standard, Microsoft itself did not fully implement that standard in its next release of Office, in 2007. Or its next. Or its next, although the ability to open and edit (but not save) documents in the ISO/IEC approved version of Open XML (which Microsoft called 'Strict Open XML') was added to Office 10. Instead, it implemented what it called 'Transitional Open XML,' which it said was more useful for working with legacy documents created using Office.”
Of course, “This was something of an embarrassment, because one reason that Microsoft had given for the necessity of ISO/IEC approving a second document standard was to facilitate working with the “billions and billions of documents” that had already been created in Office. Implementers of Open XML as actually approved by ISO/IEC therefore would not be able to achieve this goal.”
The ironic thing is that, while this was as hotly debated am issue in the mid-2000s as are mobile patents and cloud implementation is today, this news was barely noticed. That's a mistake.
Updegrove points out, “document interoperability and vendor neutrality matter more now than ever before as paper archives disappear and literally all of human knowledge is entrusted to electronic storage.” He concluded, “Only if documents can be easily exchanged and reliably accessed on an ongoing basis will competition in the present be preserved, and the availability of knowledge down through the ages be assured. Without robust, universally adopted document formats, both of those goals will be impossible to attain.”
Updegrove's right of course. Don't believe me? Go into your office's archives and try to bring up documents your wrote in the 90s in WordPerfect or papers your staff created in the 80s with WordStar. If you don't want to lose your institutional memory, open document standards support is more important than ever.