OOXML vs. ODF: Lessons learned

The votes have been tallied but it's still not 100 percent certain that Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) document-format is going to become an ISO standard.

The votes have been tallied but it's still not 100 percent certain that Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) document-format is going to become an ISO standard.

(Supposedly, the vote is still too close to call and neither ISO nor Microsoft is yet discussing the final results. But a number of sites are speculating that OOXML did manage to get enough votes to secure ISO standardization status.)

Update: The official statement from the  ISO Central Secretariat's office: "Because ISO needs first to inform its worldwide membership of national standards bodies of these results, a press release on this subject will be issued on Wednesday, 2 April 2008." No doubt word of the official count will leak well before that....

Some -- and not just Microsoft employees -- think ISO standardization for OOXML will be a good thing. Others consider OOXML becoming an ISO standard (like its rival Open Document Format alternative already is) to be one more example of Microsoft monopoly power run amok.

At this point, I'm more interested in lessons learned during the past months of standard squabbling, where both the OOXML and the ODF backers spent lots of time and money lobbying governments, partners and customers.

(I've noticed a number of Softies and other OOXML backers now saying publicly that the ODF camp could have better spent its anti-OOXML energies and funds improving the quality of ODF and products that implement it. However, the same can be said about OOXML, Office and other products implementing Microsoft's document format. Lobbying monies were wasted on both sides.)

When I asked Tom Robertson, Microsoft’s General Manager of Interoperability and Standards, last week about what lessons the Redmondians learned from the OOXML debate, he gave me a pretty noncommittal answer: "There's (now) a greater recognition in the role standards play in the marketplace."

I'd argue there's also a greater recognition by Microsoft that simply owning more than 90 percent marketshare (as Office does on Windows desktops) doesn't mean it can dictate when and if it can monkey with something as important as how documents are stored -- at least not without a lot of outcry by customers and its competitors.

Other lessons learned from the OOXML vs. ODF battle:

* Everyone plays politics. Microsoft lobbied. IBM lobbied. Google lobbied. Why? Government contracts are lucrative. No vendor can afford to be cut out of competing for business simply because it can't check the "ISO standard" box on the request-for-proposal form.

* Interoperability isn't a nicety -- it's a necessity. Would Microsoft proactively have worked with Sun, Novell and other vendors on creating OOXML-ODF translators and connectors if the lack of interoperabiltiy between OOXML and ODF wasn't highlighted by its critics? I'm doubtful.

* Backwards compatibility shouldn't be an afterthought. Making a change as sweeping as altering the underlying document format in Office can't be done without considering backward compatibility. Mac Office 2004 users still don't have a way to read the new Office 2007 file formats.

What else do you think the OOXML standards battle taught Microsoft -- and its competitors?

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