Is Microsoft reneging on its OOXML standards promise?

Is Microsoft reneging on its OOXML standards promise?

Summary: Will Office 2010 have fully 'standards-based' OOXML support - and does it need it?Alex Brown, the Convener of the Geneva Ballot Resolution Meeting where OOXML became an ISO standard, has been claiming that the OOXML process has broken down because the beta version of Office 2010 doesn't have support for the 'strict' version of the OOXML ISO/IEC 29500 format agreed as the future of OOXML in the standard.

TOPICS: Windows

Will Office 2010 have fully 'standards-based' OOXML support - and does it need it?

Alex Brown, the Convener of the Geneva Ballot Resolution Meeting where OOXML became an ISO standard, has been claiming that the OOXML process has broken down because the beta version of Office 2010 doesn't have support for the 'strict' version of the OOXML ISO/IEC 29500 format agreed as the future of OOXML in the standard. Actually says Microsoft, Office will do - it will read strict documents but doesn't write them (there just wasn't time to do it). A lot of the controversial VML is gone too.

Beyond the technical complexities - of which there are many and I'll try to deal with a few - lies the argument over what's going to be the dominant XML format for documents; not just Microsoft Office documents but word processing, spreadsheet and presentation files in the variety of Web apps and Office competitors. Opponents of Microsoft have contended that the ODF (Open Document Format) is all anyone needs; I've always thought that an inexplicably na

Topic: Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Actually, Mary, I think your first post scriptum is somewhat misinformed. Consider this analysis:

    Also, there're a lot of reasons why OOXML is a bad idea - I won't try to enumerate them all here (although here's a reasonable starting point: - Rob's writings on ODF and OOXML are always thought provoking, and I've found that he's been unfairly demonised by a lot of people who would rather that his sound analysis for Microsoft (and "friends")'s dodgy actions weren't so well presented.) - but will provide this analogy:

    Imagine that there was a system for measurement - clean, sensible, widely accepted, and the result of lots of open consultation. Let's call it the "Metric System". Imagine then, that someone came along - say a powerful, influential entity, and decided that the "Metric System" was far too simplistic to measure the things they needed to measure - all that base 10 stuff was too pedestrian. They wanted to introduce a completely new, untested measurement standard that offered far more "lyrical flexibility" with units of, say, distance like knots, furloughs, fathoms, inches, miles, yards, and leagues. Even though all these units were pretty much overlapping and inconsistent, and nothing was anywhere near base 10, this entity stated that these new, convoluted forms of measurement were necessary not to lose fidelity of their measurements. Let's, for the sake of argument, call this entity America, and this new type of measurement "American Standard".

    If confronted with this proposal and accompanying assertions by America, what would the rest of the world say? If I were the rest of the world, I'd leave them to it, and snigger quietly behind their back for their raging idiocy. The only excuse for such a measurement system is that it pre-dates the Metric System... but one could *never* make a compelling case for *introducing* such a system if it was the other way around (if the Metric System was already established). Yet that's exactly what Microsoft have done with OOXML given that ODF is already there, agreed upon, and has half a dozen working implementations. Consider the cost of requiring every mechanic to have two functionally equivalent toolsets - one metric, one American Standard! Extrapolate for all productivity software users. Big wasted $$.
  • @lightweight, I have to agree, it sounds like Microsoft wants to change the standard to their *standard*. Which, would of course, make MS Office the only entity meeting this new standard.
  • OOXML is a total dogs breakfast from start to finish. It was frantically cobbled together once Microsoft (late to the party as usual) saw that ODF was gaining real acceptance. This 'standard' has the utter gall to deliberately include a know calculating error. It also allows the inclusion of virtually undefined binary 'blobs'

    The way the 'standard' was rushed through, the irregularities and outright ballot stuffing, are an utter disgrace.

    The upshot of this is that nobody trusts an ISO ratification dated 2008 or later.

    Anyone who considers attempting to implement OOXML for serious data management should make sure they have booked plenty of psychiatric sessions well in advance.
  • lightweight - ODF is there as a standard (with minimal scrutiny), but neither you nor Rob Weir address how to handle the features that ODF doesn't support. Shall we drop PNG as JPEG was already there? Shall we say that SQL is the only database format we'll ever need? There are numerous faults with OOXML that need to be addressed but I don't see why there is so much vitriol and agitprop about this that's so divorced from the technical facts.
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • The reason there is "so much vitrol" is that more and more people are realizing that Open Standards are anathema to Microsoft. The only "standards" they seem to be interested in are those that they can control, manipulate, and use to the disadvantage of any potential competitors. I have not commented on this thread because I have been surprised that so many people seemed to be willing to pretend that Microsoft had some genuine interest in an open and equally available standard. They don't, they never have, they never will, and pretending that they do for the sake of discussion is a pointless waste of time.

  • JW - I still don't get why this gets quite such emotional responses - it's a document standard, not a religious belief.

    lightweight - I was impressed by a comment I read on Alex Brown's blog from Rick Jelliffe (so impressed I'm going to quite a chunk of it): "
    For years, we in the document industry have been demanding the same kinds of things, but in relation to Office file formats. When the EU made its call for MS to use XML and submit their formats for standardization, were we really supposed to say "Oh, after calling for this for all these years, we don't really want it or need it?"

    If MS had come to the SAMBA people 10 years ago and voluntarily submitted to internationally QA'ed open scrutiny on their documentation and its completeness, devoting substantial resources to put out so much documentation (remembering that OOXML went from around 2000 pages to around 8000 pages in response to requests for information by standards bodies) that people even began to complain it was too big, would you really have turned around and said "Oh, no, we didn't mean it, we would prefer the status quo where we have to be satisfied with whatever partial crumbs that they post on their website!"?"

    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • Um, Mary, I think JW is right. And please do us all a favour and don't conflate something as important as a file format (in which many *billions* of people hours of creative effort are stored, much of it paid for by the innocent taxpayers of many short-sighted regimes) with something as imaginary as religion. You're just being needlessly inflammatory :)

    To answer your question: hello! ODF *is* XML. It's designed to have eXtensible bits - that's what the X stands for. ODF was designed by the OASIS group... of which *Microsoft is a member*... They could've had quite a bit of influence over ODF, and yet... didn't. Instead, Microsoft snubs ODF and decides to go it alone, with a format that's at least 10 times more convoluted than ODF (which is, itself, pretty comprehensive, let's be honest). The extreme irony here, of course, is that MS hasn't even been able to implement their own standard.

    Why didn't MS leap onto the ODF bandwagon when it was still in the planning stages, making it the end all and be all? Because they thought it would never go anywhere, and they'd make more money by maintaining proprietary file format lock-in and a monopoly. But then when things started swinging towards open standards, they were caught out. So they panic'd and that's why we have OOXML. It's their attempt to undermine open standards with one that they alone control, to the detriment of those seeking to provide interoperability.
  • By the way, please allow me to draw your attention to this excellent first-person account of the OOXML debacle with commentary on its aftermath:
  • lightweight - I hold no brief to define the status of religion; religious fervour I think is entirely proven.

    I can understand criticism of a format and of a standard. It's less clear to me that proprietary extensions to one format would be better than a second documented and standardised format, when so many people have spent so long asking Microsoft to document and open their formats.

    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • Lightweight's comments are backed by a long history of Microsoft snubbing established standards, and going along their own path to try and lock in customers. Remember the "windows media photo" image format introduced for Windows XP and Vista? It was supposed to directly compete with JPEG, a well established and widely used standard for years. Luckily that one didn't take off.
  • Mary, if Microsoft's goal was to provide what the market really wants: practical interoperabliity - they would've been involved in ODF from the start, and would have adopted it for MS Office as default format. If, on the other hand, they wanted to tick a box for government procurement processes, which have recently jumped on the "open standards" bandwagon, thinking (mistakenly and naively) that open standards = interoperability, then they would attempt (to the uneducated/uninitiated) to *appear* to be in favour of open standards, while in fact creating another nuanced proprietary standard which, miraculously, gains ISO standard status. In other words: instead of working with OASIS on ODF, they introduce their own parallel standard, OOXML (which, of course, they incessantly refer to as "Open XML" in the hopes that saying it enough makes people think it's true).

    Discrediting of ISO in the process was just collateral damage (or perhaps a pleasant side effect, from MS's point of view, as they generally dislike open, independent standards).

  • lightweight - doesn't that view still rather make the assumption that ODF can support all the features in Office files that it currently doesn't? A default file format that can't store key document features without custom extensions doesn't seem to be that useful. I'm quite certain Microsoft is keen to get government procurement approval - and I've spoken to document folk like the British Library archive team who wanted an alternative to ODF with OOXML-style features for work like DAISY, so even if Microsoft had gone into it with a checkbox mentality, the various interested parties seem to have found value in it. Leaving aside any politics and looking only at the end result, is having two different standards with their own benefits a bad thing? Should PNG never have been developed because JPEG could represent the same images?

    Apex - Windows Media Photo became HD Photo, became JPEG XR, approved by the ITU in 2009 and passed as another ISO standard that year; I've seen it in Xara, IrfanView, Serif and a couple of other image editors - though I don't know of any devices that can shoot it natively and like various other standards (H.264, 802.11n - and at certain points JPEG and GIF) it's covered by patents. The issue is whether it does enough over RAW (which is a mess of proprietary camera formats) AND over JPEG for people to want it, as much as being a format from Microsoft. The technically superior JPEG 2000 hasn't swept the board clear either...
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • Mary, I think your ODF vs. OOXML and JPG vs. PNG image formats analogy is a poor one. The image formats are designed to be two fundamentally different approaches to image storage. They employ different algorithms, and they are not XML.

    My point, Mary, is that Microsoft was *part* of the OASIS committee - they could have *made* ODF into a format that was sufficiently rich for their products. They chose not to. There is a massive additional cost associated with supporting two standards rather than one.

    Now, the irony is that they *can't* use the OOXML "standard" because they haven't been competent enough to implement it. They can, however, use ODF. Mostly because Sun wrote the ODF compatibility module for MS Office first. Funnily enough, the MS-authored version of the ODF compatibility module is worse than the original Sun one in almost every way... Is MS committed to helping others interoperate with MS Office? I'd say all the evidence points to them doing it grudgingly and badly (perhaps on purpose).

    I think you'll also find that there are binary blobs (e.g. macros) in the OOXML specification, which are not defined, just as there would be in the ODF spec. Using OOXML does not actually offer substantially greater richness. OOXML is simply more complicated because it was written to reflect the internals of MS Office, rather than being independent of any specific implementation.

    The problem now is that MS Office doesn't interoperate well with anything, unless the interoperating party has done all the work (e.g. OpenOffice, Google Docs, etc.). Microsoft has not facilitated any interoperability, and in fact seems to make changes to file formats to thwart reverse-engineered compatibility quite routinely. The market needs to take them to task for being anti-competitive with regard to file level interoperability.
  • OOXML can only be a replacement for the DOC file. ODF will never support all the stuff inside a DOC file, much of it legacy and rarely used, and OOXML will never be a great format to share with people not running the latest version of MS Office. If you have created a document to simply be printed then the format is paper which everyone can use. It is only when sharing a file with different people or different pieces of software, or ensuring lifespan of a file does it matter whether or not it follows a standard. Anyone who really cares about open standards uses ODF and people who only care about Office features use DOC or OOXML.