War rages on over Microsoft's OOXML plans

War rages on over Microsoft's OOXML plans

Summary: What is it about Microsoft's proposed OOXML standard that has boffins hurling death threats at each other?

SHARE:

What is it about Microsoft's proposed OOXML standard that has boffins hurling death threats at each other? Brett Winterford investigates.

One would assume that taking a job at the ISO (International Standards Organisation) would be uncontroversial enough. Lots of paperwork, some good frequent flier miles, but nothing too explosive.

Try telling that to Australian programmer and standards activist Rick Jelliffe: a man who has had an unnatural amount of slandering and mudslinging directed at him.

It may have something to do with his controversial choice of roles. He recently hit the headlines after being offered to edit some Wikipedia entries on Microsoft's behalf.

These days, however, he finds himself an invited expert to the JTC1 SC34 steering committee for document description and processing languages -- responsible for arranging maintenance of Microsoft's proposed Office Open XML (OOXML) standard, possibly the most controversial in the technology industry's history.

OOXML is Microsoft's alternative take on ODF (Open Document Format), a file format approved as an ISO standard in May 2006 that describes the data held in office productivity documents such as word processing files and spreadsheets.

Microsoft proposed its own standard to take advantage of its stranglehold on productivity software via its Office application. But the proposal has been met with strong opposition -- both by competing vendors that had already put their energy behind the ODF effort, and by government and industry stakeholders from around the globe.

Microsoft's specification, officially termed DIS29500 by ISO, failed to achieve the minimum number of votes required to immediately be approved as an ISO standard during a ballot in September 2007.

Consequently, Microsoft has been given six months to address the issues raised by those national standards bodies that voted no.

Some 87 national standards bodies will meet in Geneva, Switzerland in February for a Ballot Resolution Meeting to decide whether the software giant has done enough.

The controversy
The controversy over OOXML has to date been characterised, perhaps too simplistically, as a stoush between the standards of Microsoft and IBM.

Microsoft has certainly made noises to that affect -- claiming that opposition to its proposed standard was sponsored by an IBM smear campaign.

But at a recent symposium at the Cyberspace Law and Policy centre of the University of NSW, it was clear that there are far more stakeholders involved.

On one side was a wall of Microsoft technologists and lawyers. Dotted around the rest of the room, representatives from IBM, Google and the Open Source Community, government users and developers from Australia and New Zealand, cushioned by Jelliffe and Standards Australia program manager Alastair Tegart.

"We feel that the best standards are open standards," technology industry commentator Colin Jackson, a member of the Technical Advisory committee convened by StandardsNZ to consider OOXML, said at the event. "In that respect Microsoft is to be applauded, as previously this was a secret binary format."

Microsoft's opponents suggest, among a host of other concerns, that making Open XML an ISO standard would lock the world's document future to Microsoft.

They argue that a standard should only be necessary when there is a "market requirement" for it.

IBM spokesperson Paul Robinson thus describes OOXML as a "redundant replacement for other standards".

Quoting from the ISO guide, Robinson said that a standard "is a document by a recognised body established by consensus which is aimed at achieving an optimum degree of order and aimed at the promotion of optimum community benefits".

It can be argued that rather than provide community benefit, supporting multiple standards actually comes at an economic cost to the user community.

"We do not believe OOXML meets these objectives of an international standard," Robinson said.

"OOXML is philosophically a problem," says StandardsNZ's advisor Jackson. "The world already had a standard [in ODF]."

"There has been insufficient technical rationale as to why we need another standard," added open source advocate Jeff Waugh.

But Jelliffe insists that it is unexceptional for there to be multiple standards in document processing languages, just as there are in graphics, programming languages, schema languages, even screwdrivers.

Microsoft regional technology officer Oliver Bell says a single standard is not something that he would expect to see anytime soon, especially when one considers that a third standard is already in the works. Dissatisfied with standards and standards processes that it feels are "discriminatory" and biased to the needs of the West, China has proposed its own national document standard -- the Uniform Office Format.

Microsoft also argues that without submitting Open XML to the wider industry, there would be large number of legacy documents -- the lion's share of the world's office documents have been produced using Microsoft Office -- that might not be accessible in the future. Considering the wide adoption of Microsoft Office, the vendor argues that "it is better to have a published, adopted standard than a de facto one."

Microsoft's Bell argues that as Redmond would most likely not be welcome in the technical committee that put the ODF standard together, co-chaired by IBM and Sun Microsystems, and given that there are difficulties in reproducing older Microsoft Office programs within the ODF format, there is a clear market need for this additional standard.

Open XML is 'technically flawed'?
The second main criticism of OOXML concerns the quality of the specification itself.

Microsoft's opponents are wary of the fact that DIS29500 was submitted for consideration as part of ISO's 'fast track' process -- which enables it to be approved within one year. By contrast, most standards take two to three years to go through the ISO process.

Jackson says that many national standards bodies became suspicious of Microsoft's motives after only being made aware of the fast-track request when they returned to work in early January, 2007 -- giving them little time to assess the proposed standard.

Time would be required, he suggested, especially as Microsoft's draft was an exhaustive 6,000 pages long. Few in the symposium admitted to being able to read the whole document.

IBM's Robinson calls it "rushed", StandardsNZ advisor Jackson calls it "undercooked".

"No standard is perfect, but in its current form, OOXML doesn't even meet the basic requirements of a standard," IBM's Robinson says.

However, DIS29500 has the same error rate as most submissions to ISO: one for every six pages. Jelliffe expects that a second draft could be reduced to 1500 pages should Microsoft set about culling redundant sections.

All at the symposium agreed that Microsoft is on track to address these technical issues before the Ballot Resolution Meeting.

Microsoft has promised to address these issues by February 2008. Even open source advocate Jeff Waugh conceded that all of these problems look on track to be resolved.

Waugh, who opposes the standard on other grounds, said: "None of the technical difficulties were showstoppers. "

There are, reportedly, other devils in the detail, however. Microsoft has been accused of embedding proprietary features -- in this case, binary data -- within OOXML which serve to tie users to Microsoft products, a charge the software giant denies.

Jelliffe says these concerns highlight that many in the industry have misguided ideas about the function and purpose of an ISO standard. "There is a difference between adopting a standard and having a standard," he said.

"ISO standards are voluntary," he said. "They are not laws and ISO does not make regulations. ISO provides the standards, the adopters [national standard bodies] determine whether its law."

Can Open XML and ODF be harmonised?
Google developer Lars Rasmussen says that ultimately, users would like to have a single, open XML document format with which they can exchange documents.

"One would hope that in a few years we can laugh at this situation," he said. "We will be able to open, read and edit document, regardless of the application we are using."

Rasmussen says there are often multiple standards in technology, but only when there is a "good solid technical reason".

"What I would like to see is that we work together to a single standard for exchange of documents," he said. "What I want to ask Microsoft is: what would be the downside if OOXML wasn't accepted and we worked towards harmonising with the ODF spec?"

There is some debate as to whether Open XML and ODF can be 'harmonised'.

Harmonisation, says Matthew Cruickshank, lead developer of docvert.org and formerly the lead developer on the New Zealand Government's largest XML Portal, can be loosely defined as feature compatibility consolidation of multiple standards by recognising similarities, redundancies and consensus.

"Personally, I think there is a market requirement for harmonisation," he said. Microsoft has said it cannot harmonise the two standards are due to differences in the implicit page style model of ODF versus the explicit page style model of OOXML, differences in table models and differences in the style information associated to spreadsheet cells.

Cruickshank describes these excuses as "facile".

"They don't really stand up. These are not big problems. Any technical person would understand that you can address these issues." Jelliffe again disagrees. He says "no one really knows what all the differences are" between Open XML and OpenDocument.

"Until you know that, you can't be too dogmatic about whether there can or can't be harmonisation," he said. "At the moment we can't get most of the players in the same room together. There is all this mutual suspicion and venom and heat about it. With ISO, at least we get them in the same building."

Microsoft argues that a harmonised standard would be unlikely to reproduce older Office documents in full fidelity.

Further, Microsoft's Bell argues that a process of harmonisation would be unlikely to result in an enriched version of either OOXML or ODF given the broad market adoption of both the formats already.

"I would expect the outcome to be a third standard based upon a mix of requirements from both," he said.

Tegart, representing Standards Australia, is already predicting such an outcome.

"Essentially, a standard is what people agree on," he said. "There might be a path for a third standard, which is what [both parties] agree on. We would naturally prefer to come to a resolution."

Cruickshank says users would be better served by a truly harmonised, single open standard, one which would blur Open Document and Open XML together.

"Yes, you could say that it would be introducing a new standard, but only in so far as ODF 1.2 is an update on ODF 1.1. Open XML would merge into the core of ODF and be known as ODF in the future."

The need for resolution
Jackson says it is essential that the user community -- particular in government where archiving of data is a key requirement -- is provided with a single workable open standard.

"From a government perspective, digital sustainability is essential," says Jackson. "Agencies need to know that they can they get access to documents in 100 years time." Greg Stone, regional technology officer for Microsoft in Australia/NZ, said that these messages are being registered. Microsoft, he insists, had users in mind in submitting the spec for critical analysis.

"I don't think anyone is denying that harmonisation would be a noble goal over time," says.

"We at Microsoft felt, 'let's step up to the plate and make this easier by providing as much information as possible'. We can make the spec available so the market can choose to take it up or not."

Jelliffe said he wouldn't personally recommend the use of OOXML for public government documents. "But just because I don't think it should be used, that doesn't mean I think the standard shouldn't be available," he said. "It's not OK to say I don't need this, therefore you can't have it. That's not the way the system works."

Topics: IBM, Data Management, Open Source, Patents

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

9 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Microsoft's Bell argues

    That is a flat out lie. Microsoft is a member of OASIS and the are more than welcomed to join in and help develop ODF. They were invited in the beginning but declined and created this mess. They are still MORE than welcomed to help develop a universal format for all instead of OOXML which can only bennifit MS
    anonymous
  • Proprietary

    Microsoft has the lions share of the office productivity market. They have this because frankly their software is better. I don't care how you tell me about this that or the other about the ODF formats, the software simply isn't at the same quality level.

    With that said, ODF is to be applauded for forcing MS to at least place the facade of open source on the documents. However everyone must realise that they intentionally created a competing standard, and I'm afraid that I disagree with anon above me, in that if ODF were adopted, microsoft would have a genuine competitor to it's document formats in the enterprise, and would then have to suppport the inevitable flaws and disagreements on the standards between the IBM camp and itself.

    That is exactly why they have attempted to steam roll ISO to get their new standard. Once everyone realises that no matter how "evil" microsoft is, they are running a business, and they are doing incredibly well at exactly that, with their choices on OOXML exemplifying exactly that.
    anonymous
  • Proprietary

    Better or worse product is not relevant to getting and ISO standard, Having the dominant share also has nothing to do with getting an ISO. An ISO standard represents a common ground for everyone, not simply the formal ratification of a de facto format which is loaded with all types of proprietary technology and references to legacy products. OOXML is a great format for MS and thier products, and that is all. Reject it as an ISO.
    anonymous
  • get real

    "Microsoft has the lions share of the office productivity market. They have this because frankly their software is better."
    No microsoft is where they are today because of aggressive and many times illegal business practices . Not because of the quality of their software.look at their history and youll see they really just used unfair business practices and lawsuits (and possibly worse) to get where they are.
    anonymous
  • Microsoft's OOXML plans!

    The OOXML is Microsoft's plan! Not the World at large!

    Microsoft should not be allowed to sneak in it's proprietary standard, it should be made to join with others and develop a common open standard.
    anonymous
  • Untruths in Microsoft's claims

    (1) As a member of OASIS, Microsoft were invited and indeed pleaded with to be a part of the ODF development effort. Microsoft flatly refused.

    (2) Microsoft twice voted to approve ODF as being fit for its purpose, once as an OASIS standard, and a second time as an ISO standard, after a long review period each time where Microsoft declined to offer any comments.

    (3) OOXML is full of proprietary hooks. It abounds with references to proprietary Microsoft technologies such as ActiveX, DCOM, VBA, WMF, WMA, WMV and many others. None of those technologies are part of the OOXML specification itself, and as "merely referenced" technologies they are not covered by Microsoft's Open Specification Promise. This means, in effect, that any application supporting OOXML must be executable ONLY on a Windows platform, in order to gain support for the afore-mentioned technologies form the underlying OS.

    (4) Microsoft Office 2007 does not create OOXML files. It can read in OOXML files, but it saves .docx files as a different format. There has been no commitment from Microsoft to make Office 2007 support ECMA OOXML, even insofar as it stands now, let alone after whatever modifications are required in the upcoming ISO process.

    (5) There have been no demonstrations by Microsoft that show ODF as being deficient in any way. Any claims by Microsoft of deficiencies of ODF are so far entirely self-serving and unsupported assertions only.
    anonymous
  • Heat and venom

    Thanks for the good article, Brett. Could you remove "death threat" and replace it with "death wishes" though? It hasn't gone as far as threats!

    The common theme underlying the responses is that MS' claim that they would be discriminated against at OASIS ODF is bogus, therefore ECMA should be discriminated against at ISO. That will teach them!
    anonymous
  • 2 Areas of Weakness

    You seem to like MS Office. I would suggest to you that MS Word suffers two main areas of weakness.
    1. Editing documents in Word is crude at best. Format codes are hidden, and nesting of formats are invisible. This is why Word Perfect from 1995 (a DOS version) is still better in a professional environment than Word is. What can take hours to fix in a corrupted word document takes only a minute to fix in the much older program. It doesn't look as pretty on screen, and it can take longer to place new (and unneeded) effects in the document, but those things are detractions from the real role of documents in business. Word is a very second rate document editing system.
    2. Document long term access in Microsoft products is non-existent. There are documents that require you to have the same version of Office, and the same version of Windows as they were created with to render properly. They are not much better on new versions of Office than they are with competing products. You may not be in a situation where you need to access documents you created more than 5 years ago, but I am. 5 years is about Microsoft's' event horizon. Some activities don't need 5 years, they need hundreds of years. That is the real reason that Governments don't rely on digital storage. They can't
    These shortcomings are not even addressed in the OOXML standard. In fact, it allows wiggle room to continue the problems into the future.
    I wish that ODF did better. It doesn't yet. Open Office is no better a document editor than Word is. In some cases, it's worse. Both programs have abandoned basic functionality to chase after becoming poor competitors to Printmaster. They are far below full packages like Adobe's professional stuff. Neither ODF or OOXML are adequate for professional compositing and layout work. yet many secretaries spend hours trying. Both word processors should be better basic word processors. Looks to me like marketers claims matter more than usability to both camps. I wish it was better than this. It's not.
    anonymous
  • Sinister attempt at further monopolisation of software

    Well, it has happened.

    I have now received as an attachment, a file that is a .docx file.

    It cannot be read without software that reads the M$ proprietary format.

    Thus, it cannot be read by anyone here.

    It is the same as encryption, where you have to pay for the encryption key.

    So, the ISO has formally approved the software monopolisation by M$; if you want to read the documents, you must have M$-based software!

    Kching! Kching! The tills are ringing.

    Nothing like support for monopolies by ISO!

    It has to be asked; how much money was paid, or, what financial benefits were given, to the voting members of ISO, by M$, so that M$ could secure its software monopoly with the asistance of ISO ?
    anonymous