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

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.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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 OpenOffice.org can thrive on its technical grounds."

* "To make ODF successful, we need to make OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org. If everyone complaining about OOXML was actually hacking on improving OpenOffice.org 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?

Editorial standards