Microsoft: Why the ODF vs. OOXML battle matters

Microsoft: Why the ODF vs. OOXML battle matters

Summary: I had a chance to ask Tom Robertson, General Manager of Interoperability and Standards for Microsoft -- someone who has a lot invested in the ODF vs. OOXML contest -- a few questions regarding why folks should care about the never-ending file-format wars.

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TOPICS: Microsoft
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Hardly a week goes by without some new story on OpenDoc Format (ODF) vs. Office Open XML (OOXML) file-format wars grabbing headlines. This week, it's California is threatning to go the way of Massachusetts in decreeing that state agencies make ODF their document standard.

Microsoft's GM of Standards and Interop Tom RobertsonI haven't been one to give the ODF vs. OOXML battle much attention. But since nearly every other tech blogger and journalist seemed to find the ODF vs. OOXML contest endlessly fascinating, I couldn't help but wonder if I was missing something.

I had a chance to ask Tom Robertson, General Manager of Interoperability and Standards for Microsoft -- someone who has a lot invested in the ODF vs. OOXML contest -- a few questions regarding why folks should care about ODF and OOXML.

Here are my questions and Robertson's answers (exchanged via e-mail):

Q: There has been so much back-and-forth between Microsoft, IBM, Sun and other players in the desktop office suite space lately over ODF vs. OOXML. Why does Microsoft consider this important enough to dedicate so much time and energy to?

Robertson: The discussions around Open XML and ODF are a proxy for product competition in the marketplace. Ultimately, this attention and focus on the needs of those who use office productivity software is a good thing for all concerned, but the attention being paid relates back to the commercial opportunities for MS Office, IBM’s Workplace (Open Client), and OpenOffice commercial offerings from Sun and others. For us, the move to an XML-based file format is an important aspect of Office 2007.

Q: Who really cares about this ODF vs. OOXML battle? Is the subset of customers to whom this matters simply government users (for whom policies regarding open standards are premade by legislators)? Is this government-user segment a substantial part of Microsoft's customer base? (And is it possible to quantify its importance in some way?)

Robertson: Governments are the most concerned with the issue of ISO-standardized document formats. Not only do some governments have requirements to accept communications if they are presented in ISO-approved formats, but there are other factors as to why XML-based formats matter (such as long-term archival) as well. The concepts of interoperability, greater choice of solutions, and the ability to translate between formats are all important to governments. In general, we are not hearing about this issue from our enterprise or consumer customers – it is localized to governments today.

Q: To me, it seems like non-governmental users won't and don't care about which file formats their office apps use, given that Microsoft Office still has a more than 95% market share. If you run Office, you basically have to deal with OOXML and older Microsoft file formats. If you run something else, you better find out whether your apps can read/write the Microsoft formats? Am I oversimplifying here?

Robertson: We are always looking to improve the value our software delivers to customers – always. We heard from many customers that .pdf support was important, and you are familiar with what happened there. We support more than 30 other file formats (some standardized, some not) in the Office product because customers have a wide range of both choices and needs for formats. We think Open XML is a very compelling technology, and the work done in Ecma TC45 made it better (we made changes to the format in our final product based on input from companies such as Apple, Novell, and Toshiba as well as organization such as the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Library). Office 2007 enables people to choose from many formats, and now the Open XML Translator has enabled read and write capabilities for ODF as well.

Q: Again, based on what I am hearing from my readers, the bigger battle between file formats is more about the older Office formats and OOXML. Mac Office users still can't read OOXML-formatted documents (of which I've started receiving a few lately). Does Microsoft consider file-format incompatibilities within its own installed base is much of an area of concern?

Robertson: The short answer is yes. We developed the Compatibility Pack (that can be downloaded at http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=941b3470-3ae9-4aee-8f43-c6bb74cd1466&DisplayLang=en ) to ensure that Open XML works with older versions of Office. Our end goal is interoperability, and we are working with our partners to develop solutions for any incompatibilities that customers care about.

Q: Novell has said it plans to build OOXML support into a forthcoming version of OpenOffice. Is Microsoft planning to point to that capabilitiy/technology as providing the missing half of OOXML-ODF translation? What I mean here is the ODF translator recently developed and released by Microsoft and friends seems to be a one-way translator: It allows OOXML-based products to read and save ODF-based documents. It does not allow ODF-based suites to open and save OOXML-formatted documents. What is Microsoft telling customers who need a translator that provides the latter functionality?

Robertson: As the translation tools are developed and completed, they are made available on Microsoft Download Center , Office Online and Sourceforge . As far as we know, the Translator does translate, open and save back and forth between ODF and Open XML. Furthermore, it has been built as an independent piece of technology so that it may be used in other applications – not just office suites – but by anyone interested in translation (e.g. a document management application provider). Yes, Novell has said they are building it into OpenOffice. It is an open source project and available for anyone to use.

Other questions I should have asked Robertson? (Who knows, maybe he'll entertain a few more....) 

 

Topic: Microsoft

About

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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30 comments
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  • A question

    "As far as we know, the Translator does translate, open and save back and forth between ODF and Open XML."

    It doesn't sound like he's especially confident about this. Why would this person, out of all the people on the planet, not -know- if the 'translator' actually can make the round trip or not?

    "As far as we know, if you can't swim, you could just walk on the water instead. There is at least one documented instance of this happening ... there may be others. Hey ... why not give us $$$ and we'll let you use our water in your pool and you can try it for yourself. If it doesn't work, you can drain the water. But the money is ours to keep."

    It does or it does not work.

    BTW ... when MSFT added *.pdf because they "listened to their customers", I think that it was because their customers were saying "good-bye". Open Office (the FREE version) had that capability well ahead of MS Office
    Jambalaya Breath
    • Adobe has objected against PDF built in in MS Office

      Microsoft asked Adobe about permission for adding PDF to default MS Office installation and Adobe has refused but on the other gave OpenOffice permission to use it in their suite.
      Multivac
      • what is the evidence for this statement?

        This sounds like Microsoft claiming that they wanted to implement Java, but that mean old Sun wouldn't let them. We found in documents released in Combs v. Microsoft that the highest levels of Microsoft said 'no f***ing way' (Microsoft didn't have to worry about offending messages being removed, so you can rhyme f*** with duck if you want the original) would they implement Java 1.2 or above without being able to add non-standard interfaces so that Java developed by Visual J++ would no longer be portable. Microsoft will even subvert the guardian of Hell (Kerberos) to achieve vendor lock-in. They might be turning over a new leaf with OOXML, but this would be extraordinary. Extraordinary claims need clear evidence. Where is your evidence?
        shis-ka-bob
  • Why? Marketing!

    "[i]The discussions around Open XML and ODF are a proxy for product competition in the marketplace[/i]"

    That's it with remarkable honesty - Microsoft feels that absolute control over its Office file formats is fundamental to maintaining Office's market position. It doesn't care who copies them (has anyone been sued for copying Word's file format?) just so long as everyone is using Microsoft's proprietary format.

    MS must have spent an awful lot of money developing their own XML formats and racing them through the ECMA whereas they could have just used ODF. Clearly this has nothing to do with the customer or functionality and everything to do with protecting MS Office's near monopoly.

    Thank heavens Microsoft's attempt to neuter ODF by not supporting it failed, hopefully the world will gravitate toward ODF and we can get some competition back into the office suite market.
    Fred Fredrickson
    • Micrcosft started with XML format before ODF

      <blockquote>MS must have spent an awful lot of money developing their own XML formats and racing them through the ECMA whereas they could have just used ODF</blockquote>

      Micrsoft started with it's XML format in august 2000 (beta Offcie XP). So they have spent 6 years on getting it finalizend and standardized trough Ecma. To fully switch their Office suite internally to work with ODF might take them another 6 years and then still ODF might not be compatible.

      How could Microsoft have used a spec for it's office suite which wasn't really in exisitance when MS started it's 2007 Office suite design. ODF was only proposed for ISO standardisation in 2005 when MS was already in beta with it's own XML format.
      Before 2005 OpenDocument format was known als Open Office Format. They changed names later to loose the connection with OpenOffice.
      Multivac
      • re: Micrcosft started with XML format before ODF

        Microsoft had an "observer" in the ODF standards body for a long time. It is not like they didn't know it was coming.
        Demolish
  • One-way glass

    [i]The discussions around Open XML and ODF are a proxy for product competition in the marketplace.[/i]

    Yup, that's SpokesVole all right. The data is only a side-effect of what really matters: the executable program. After all, they sell programs not data.

    Of course they have a hard time understanding the users who care about the data and for whom the software is only a tool to work on the data. That, or they [b]do[/b] understand them and exploit the fact to keep the customers locked in.

    Hmmmm...
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Nice one, tic!

      [i]"The data is only a side-effect of what really matters: the executable program. After all, they sell programs not data"[/i]

      That very accurately sums up the whole discussion.

      Period!
      bportlock
      • Not tic

        I often wish I was as well informed and eloquent as Yagotta, but sadly, I usually fall short.
        tic swayback
    • your bias is showing

      very clearly. Lets take off your blinders.

      Both sides, MS and the ODF crowd, are in it for the money. IBM and the rest aren't pushing formats 'for the good of the people'. They sell software and support just like MS. They want to get paid, just like MS.

      I fail to see why you choose to applaud one side of a marketing campaign while deriding MS for doing the very same marketing.
      mdemuth
      • Qui Bono?

        [i]Both sides, MS and the ODF crowd, are in it for the money. IBM and the rest aren't pushing formats 'for the good of the people'. They sell software and support just like MS. They want to get paid, just like MS.[/i]

        I wonder what Boeing and the Society of Biblical Literature are selling?
        Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Not quite

        I wrote my dissertation in Word, I then exported the text into LaTeX. Today, the Word version is unreadable but the LaTeX (and the PDF generated from it) are just fine. This is not simply about money. This is about the reasonable expectation of all of us that our work can survive longer than the lifetime of a given software product. TeX is a well defined standard independent of its implementation. The same is demonstrably true of PDF and ODF. There are multiple implementations of each of these standards, and they do a reasonable job of exchanging documents (e.g. KOffice and OpenOffice.org both read/write ODF - ODF is not tied to a single implementation.) I don't need to trust either IBM nor Microsoft, I just have to act in my own best interest. I believe that a truly open document standard is in my interest - so I support ODF and I remain skeptical of OOXML. My skepicism is the result of only once finding a Microsoft product ( their TCP stack once they gave up on NetBEUI) that didn't lead to subversion of open standards. They intentionally screwed up Kerberos, HTML, Java (>1.1.8) and so on. Embrace/Extend/Extinguish is a well-established Microsoft tactic. My C++ with MFC & ODBC from 1995 was replaced by VB 4 with ADO, which was replaced by VB 6 with ADO, then C# with .Net 1.0 and ADO.Net. However, some cross platform SNMP agents written using ANSI C++ with STL are still in production. There is no reuse if you use Microsoft, only rewrite. Microsoft wants all of us to run around like mice in a wheel and pay them for every revolution of the wheel. I'm tired of that, I want to have real reuse. I believe, based upon experience, that reuse needs real standards (ANSI C++, SNMP, etc), not every changing de facto standard from a commercial entity.
        shis-ka-bob
      • No Bias Here

        Perhaps we applaud IBM and castigate M$ because IBM's move to support ODF does not attempt to enforce vendor lock-in, but OOXML in M$ Office does? Perhaps also because all the while that ODF was in discussion and development M$ was a member of the OASIS committee and chose not to participate in its development, and now that ODF is an ISO standard, they wish to subvert it by attempting to fast-track a 6000+ page behemoth of a specification via an ECMA rubber stamp so that they can continue to confuse and control the marketplace? Maybe?
        Bill_
    • No lock in

      Since OOXML is as open as ODF is there is no question of a vendor lock-in. Several parties including Sun even claim to have converters for OOXML to ODF shortly after the specs were published by Ecma

      That means they confirm that they can use OOXML in their products.
      You cannot claim a vendor lock in if products from different companies claim support for the format.
      Multivac
      • ObQuirk!

        [i]Since OOXML is as open as ODF[/i]

        Nope -- it's full of undocumented references to other Microsoft products.

        [i]is there is no question of a vendor lock-in.[/i]

        When a second product comes out that supports it we can talk.

        [i]Several parties including Sun even claim to have converters for OOXML to ODF shortly after the specs were published by Ecma[/i]

        No, they have plug-ins for MSOffice that import and export to ODF. They don't access the files directly but instead use MS' APIs to do so, since MSOffice is the only software that can reliably parse the files.

        [i]You cannot claim a vendor lock in if products from different companies claim support for the format.[/i]

        When that happens we can talk. At present, you're assuming facts not in evidence.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
      • From debatable to wrong ...

        [i]Since OOXML is as open as ODF is there is no question of a vendor lock-in.[/i]

        [b]Bwahahahahahaha![/b]

        Some of your arguments earlier in the feedback were iffy, but at least discussable.

        OOXML is a 6000 page specification that requires elements of MS products and operating systems in order to be implemented. It is also not sub-licensable. There can be no actual refutation of that as being less open than ODF.

        The word open is a misnomer at best when applied to OOXML. Your comparison of the openess of the two is ludicrous if based on ignorance and most ignoble if you knew what the truth was.
        Still Lynn
      • No lock in?

        Well here's a question: Does the OOXML converter run on any platform other than WinDoze (tm)? For instance -- can I FTP a document formatted in OOXML to a Sun box (or Linux/HP/AIX) and read and/or edit that document with StarOffice, OpenOffice, or the like? If not, then I'd say we still have a vendor lock-in issue. From what I've read, the OOXML format makes use of WinDoze-specific functionality to render the document.
        Bill_
  • This is so amaizingly backward

    The point of a data standard is to allow customers to choose the software independently of what others choose. The document format should not be tied to an implementation, that is just a** backwards to any standard process. I cannot open the Microsoft Word version of my dissertation from the early 90's, but I can easily open the LaTeX version and the PDF version. LaTeX and PDF are open standards, we know about Microsoft Office formats. Of course, the PDF was not generated from the Word version, but from the LaTeX. Microsoft has just lost all credibility with me if they think that document format choices are just a proxy for software product battles. I want my documents to survive longer than my typewriter, word processor or PC - why is that permanence impossible only for Microsoft Word?
    shis-ka-bob
    • With OOXML that bakcward compatibility is possible

      That is exactly what OOXML will provide you.
      The OOXML specs are published by Ecma for everybody to freely use.
      Multivac
      • Do, pray tell,

        explain how ECMA 376 will magically enable him to access his dissertation, which is in a format not supported by any current software.
        Yagotta B. Kidding