File format wars: Is there more to ODF vs. OOXML than vendor politics?

File format wars: Is there more to ODF vs. OOXML than vendor politics?

Summary: Standards battles tend to be all about politics and politicking, as the increasingly heated Open Document Format (ODF) vs. Open Office XML (OOXL) file-format contest proves.

TOPICS: Microsoft

Standards battles tend to be all about politics and politicking, as the increasingly heated Open Document Format (ODF) vs. Office Open XML (OOXL) file-format contest proves.

Blogs (and lawsuits) have become the new battleground. In this corner, we have Bob Sutor, Vice President of Standards and Open Source for IBM. He's joined by Massachusetts attorney Andy Updegrove, who is with technology law firm Gesmer Updegrove LLP. And in this corner, we've got Jason Matusow, Microsoft's director of corporate standards strategy. And his assistant, Doug Mahugh, Microsoft Open XML Tech Evangelist.

For those who'd rather not wade through Microsoft's 6,000-page spec or a Wikipedia synopsis which may or may not be accurate, here's an admittedly oversimplified (but hopefully digestible) summary:

Microsoft, with its more than 90 percent desktop-office-suite market share, is trying to push a new, unwanted "standard" on customers, the OOXML critics say. Making matters more egregious, Microsoft won't insure that OOXML and ODF are interoperable. (The OOXML-ODF translator Microsoft rolled out last week only provides a partial solution: It allows Microsoft Office users to open and work on documents created in ODF format and to save those documents in ODF format, but not vice versa.) Microsoft says IBM and other open-source allies are behind any pushback OOXML encounters at the standardization level.

Government customers -- here in the U.S. and abroad -- are on the front lines of the OOXML vs. ODF war. That's not too surprising, given the strength of Linux and OpenOffice in countries that can't or won't pay full price for Microsoft's software. And because a growing number of governments are stipulating that software they use must adhere to "open standards," software vendors are rushing to insure their offerings have the seal of approval so they can compete on government bids.

If you're looking for a credible and relatively unbiased voice in all this, Miguel de Icaza, Vice President of Developer Platforms at Novell, has weighed in on the ongoing brouhaha. Granted, de Icaza works for Novell -- which late last year signed a sweeping technology alliance with Microsoft (which includes, among other provisions, Novell's agreement to incorporate OOXML file compatibility into its version of OpenOffice). But de Icaza also wears proudly his open-source hat and is a strong ODF advocate.

In a January 30 blog post, de Icaza made the following observations:

* "There is a good case to be made for OOXML to be further fine-tuned before it becomes an ISO standard. But considering that Office 2007 has shipped, I doubt that any significant changes to the file format would be implemented in the short or medium term. The best possible outcome in delaying the stamp of approval for OOXML would be to get further clarifications on the standard. Delaying it on the grounds of technical limitations is not going to help much."

* "(E)ven if people manage to stop OOXML from becoming an ISO standard it will be an ephemeral victory. We need to recognize that this is the problem. Instead of trying to bury OOXML, which amounts to covering the sun with your finger. We need to make sure that can thrive on its technical grounds."

* "To make ODF successful, we need to make a better product, and we need to keep improving it. It is very easy to nitpick a standard, specially one that is as big as OOXML. But it is a lot harder to actually improve If everyone complaining about OOXML was actually hacking on improving to make it a technically superior product in every sense we would not have to resort, as a community, to play a political case on weak grounds."

I think de Icaza's got some valid points. You?

Topic: Microsoft


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Assume a spherical cow ...

    [i]Standards battles tend to be all about politics and politicking, as the increasingly heated Open Document Format (ODF) vs. Open Office XML (OOXL) file-format contest proves.[/i]

    Sorry, I don't buy it. Having participated in standards work, I can tell you that politics do [b]not[/b] always carry the day, even when the industry's 800-pound gorilla comes in making demands.

    The reason is, unlike in politics, some engineering decisions are just plain objectively [b]bad[/b]. Declaring 1900 a leap year is, arguably, one of those. Setting up a "standard" for language coding -- with no mechanism for maintaining it -- when one already exists and is in use by the rest of the world across multiple contexts is another.

    Miguel is right in that Microsoft is going to do whatever it likes regardless of ISO. That [b]is[/b] a political reality, much like the United States' refusal to adopt the same system of weights and measures that the rest of the world uses. One solution would be for the rest of the world to accept that it's lost the argument and adopt US weights and measures.

    Somehow, it doesn't look like that idea has legs.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Actually . . .

      The US Gov. DID implement the Metric system as A standard in the US, and mandated it's use by the Military, and other Gov. units. What it DIDN'T do is REQUIRE that everyone convert to those standards . . . Hence, when you buy a product in the US, you usually see BOTH measures on the product, etc. Example: I have a diet drink on my desk right now. It shows 20 fl oz, and right underneath, it shows: (1.25 PT) 591 mL. The only thing that doesn't that comes to mind right now is when you buy gasoline in this country . . .

      as for the OOXML vs ODF thing, I think that both sides need to go to their rooms until they can act like adults <snicker>. That's going be about as effective as any other solution that anyone else will be able to come up with . . .
    • Now that I think about it some more . . .

      The Congress DID require that the Metric system be the primary system, but there was such an uproar over it, that they rescinded the Mandate . . . This was in the seventies, if I remember correctly (early to mid 70's, as I remember being in Jr. High . . .).
    • 1900 a leap year?

      "Declaring 1900 a leap year is, arguably, one of those."

      Where was 1900 a leap year?

      Did I miss a day?
      Richard Flude
      • Where was 1900 a leap year?

        In Microsoft's universe. The date function in MSXML requires that 1900 be treated as a leap year.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
  • Microsoft, the lords of time

    Oh that wonderful 'open' standard. 6000 pages in which we learn tat any implementation of MS XML must be backward compatible wit software bugs in proprietary applications, applications who's specs remain unpublished. The year 1900 wasn't a leap year, but, because of a Microsoft coding error, Microsoft's proprietary XML relies on all implementations pretending that it is, which would result in time gaps being wrongly calculated and in some cases days of the week in spreadsheets would be incorrect. That's open - force the world to accept Microsoft coding errors.

    "To help Office to become a standard, one adaptation governments could make would be to retroactively declare 1900 a leap year. This would require updates to history books and other documents (for instance, V-E day would change to May 7, and the World Trade Center attacks would have taken place on September 10"

    Witness the power of Microsoft! Adoption of their bastardised, proprietary XML is so crucial to themthat they demand the world rewrites its history books so that their "standard" can become the norm. Ridiculous!
    A record 19 countries have logged "contradiction" reports with the Joint Technical Committee 1 (JTC), the ISO/IEC body that is managing the Fast Track process under which OOXML (now Ecma 476) has been submitted. UK's British STandards Institute is among these dissenting bodies.

    Meanwhile ...
    Subject: Approval of OpenDocument v1.1 as OASIS Standard

    * From: "Mary McRae" <>
    * To: <>,<>
    * Date: Thu, 1 Feb 2007 09:28:53 -0500

    OASIS members:

    We are pleased to announce that the Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) Specification v1.1 has
    been approved as an OASIS Standard. The submission of the approved standard can be found at [1].

    Congratulations to the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) TC, and the community of
    implementers, developers and users who have brought the work successfully to culmination.



    Mary P McRae
    Manager of TC Administration, OASIS
    • TARDIS

      Yeah, but are they stuck with that stupid postbox or does theirs morph like it should?
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • HEY!!!! Don't knock the Police Box motif . . .

        or we'll have to ensure that you'll never be born . . . .did you spot the error in the previous post? MS isn't the source of the 1900 bug. Lotus 123 was. MS put it into excel to ensure compatibility with 123 files (Back when they cared about such thing because they didn't control the market, yet).
      • Now that I think about it some more . . .(mk II)

        I think that the 1900 error wasn't a bug at all but something that related to that fact that the early versions of DOS had troubles with dates before then, too. Something in the shipset, or something???

        It's been too long, I'm having trouble remembering. It's all so fuzzy, now . . .'course, that might be the result of some of my other activities, back then . . .<grin>
        • there is no need for such errors to be continued to a physical doc format

          The whole was MSofficeXML is designed shows a complete misunderstanding of what it should be for.
          The schema should describe how to put text and graphics onto paper period. It shouldn't have ridiculous bugs from twenty years ago, it shouldn't have binary style information (and it has).

          All you can trust MSofficeXML to give you is some logical document information (the only way you can get that onto paper is using Microsoft Office), whereas ODF gives you enough information to take your document and generate a physical layout.

          So clearly MSofficeXML is inferior technically. Anyone who knows XML knows this within seconds of examining the schema and example documents.

          Then there is the issue that ODF is not only technically vastly superior as a schema, but it is also multi-vendor. Slam dunk.

          No zealotry necessary, ODF wins technically and on multi-vendor front.
  • YES!! He has a lot of good points. But, Governments and large corporations

    can save a lot of money by demanding open standards such as ODF, and forcing Microsoft to compete straight up. But, it is also true that we should not exit the political battles and let Microsoft do all of the talking. Miguel de Icaza should understand that the best product does not win on technical merits alone. The political battles are extremely important and must be fought as well, even if it does distract a little from making OpenOffice better.

    But, we should also not focus on OpenOffice alone. I look forward to compatibility across all spreadsheets, word processors, and presentation programs. including WordPerfect, Smart Suite, AbiWord, GNumeric, KOffice, OpenOffice, . . . . .
    • ODF is not vendor or program-specific

      Good point, it's not about OpenOffice, but ODF. ODF is not vendor or program-specific. [b]Any[/b] office program could use ODF as its default file format ? even Microsoft Word and Excel. So de Icaza's point on making OpenOffice better is a red herring.
    • But, Governments and large corporations should be FORCED

      to using only one format and should never be allowed to make a CHOICE based upon what they want of need.
  • In the interest of correctness...

    In the interest of correctness, OOXML is [b][i]Office Open XML[/i][/b], not Open Office XML. The latter makes it sound like it has something to do with Which is exactly why Microsoft chose to call it that - to confuse the market...
    • Thanks for the catch

      Fixed the reference to OOXML. Thanks.
      Mary Jo Foley
  • In the interest of correctness...

    In the interest of correctness, OOXML is [b][i]Office Open XML[/i][/b], not Open Office XML. The latter makes it sound like it has something to do with Which is exactly why Microsoft chose to call it that - to confuse the market...
    • Sorry about the dup

      Seems ZDNet has made some changes that threw NoScript for Firefox for a loop there. Now why should I have to allow scripts from [i][/i] to execute for me to reply in Talkback?
  • Pay to Play OOXML

    Is there a compelling reason to develop to the new 00XML standard? The Novell/Microsoft marriage may have been on that track at one time but with the overwhelming success of Microsoft's SUSE Linux - which comes with Open Office. Shareholders and management now know what every one else in the business knows. You can make money selling other folks software and that especially includes open source. It is likely that only Allchin cared about OOXML. He is now out. What does Ozzy say about it? If paid to play with OOXML, then this is worth looking at. If not, then I do not see a justification.
    • There's only one reason that matters

      [i]"Is there a compelling reason to develop to the new 00XML standard?"[/i]

      If your revenues depend on selling Microsoft technology over and over again to the same customer base every few years then you have a very compelling reason to develop to the OOXML standard. The customers must be locked in to guarantee future sales. Intersuite compatibilty must never be allowed.
  • Not so fast, Mary, no he doesn't have a valid point

    [de Icaza]: [i]If everyone complaining about OOXML was actually hacking on improving to make it a technically superior product in every sense we would not have to resort, as a community, to play a political case on weak grounds.[/i]
    This argument belies the very point of an Open Standard. de Icaza seems to think that we should shut up about OXML because it is cloaked in the inevibility of Microsoft's dominant market share. But governments, businesses, and individuals are no longer willing to compute by oligarchy. de Icaza seems to be saying that market share sets the standard. No it doesn't; market share only sets the [i]de facto[/i] standard. And as Bob Sutor notes: "The basic problem with a de facto standard is that it is controlled by a single vendor who can, and often does, change it whenever the vendor decides to do so. This frequently happens when a product goes from one major version to another. At that point, everyone else who is trying to interoperate with the information created in the owning vendor?s product must scramble and try to make their own software work again."

    Let us be clear: the choice is not between being able to interoperate with Microsoft ? thanks to Novell and Corel doing interoperability work for them ? or being stuck in some ODF ghetto, unable to read Microsoft documents. Everyone wants to interoperate. The question is how. The problem is Microsoft, and the solution lies with Microsoft. It's 2007, and it's time that Microsoft followed the same standards everyone else, instead of insisting the world bend to their ways. Microsoft's OXML doesn't disrupt this propensity. It's not only unacceptable, but quite strange that even now we can't all freely share documents with one another, no matter what operating system we like to use. We can send each other email, read each others' blogs and websites, even if you are on Windows, I'm on Linux, and Uncle Fester is using OS X. Why isn't that the norm for everything? It ought to be. The bottleneck is Microsoft. FOSS software is happy to interoperate with any other software. Why won't Microsoft? That is the $64,000 question in 2007. All this only matters if you intend to use Microsoft Word.

    I suggest that OpenOffice is the equivalent of Office 2003, and would de Icaza claim that suite is now junk? Software can (and will) always be improved, but Open Source will never have a multi-billion dollar budget to spend on developers. That's not how it works, nor will it ever work that way. So no, de Icaza does not have a valid point.