Microsoft ECMA/ISO move could give Office formats new lease on life

I'm trying to grab a few vacation days here during the short week. But the news that Microsoft is looking to establish its Office XML Reference Schema (the new file format for it's Office productivity suite) as an International Organization of Standardization (ISO) ratified standard has pulled me out of hiding for at least one blog.

I'm trying to grab a few vacation days here during the short week. But the news that Microsoft is looking to establish its Office XML Reference Schema (the new file format for it's Office productivity suite) as an International Organization of Standardization (ISO) ratified standard has pulled me out of hiding for at least one blog.

The announcement is very significant With so many companies behind ODF, things could eventually swing in ODF's favor. to any discourse taking place in any organization over the merits of Microsoft's file format versus that OASIS-stewarded OpenDocument Format (ODF) which, until yesterday's announcement, was the more freely deployable of the two by third party developers (particularly open source developers).  That "openness" gave the Commonwealth of Massachusetts the assurances it was looking for in hopes of guaranteeing the availability of its public documents in perpetuity: something it was nervous about, given its reliance on Microsoft's formats.  The state had at one point been considering Microsoft's formats but backed away from that idea when Microsoft denied the state's requests to make its formats even more open than they were. (See "Microsoft: We were railroaded in Massachusetts on ODF.")  Namely, the state asked Microsoft to turn control of its XML-based file formats over to a multi-party body or consortium and to redact some of language in its patent license that, according to open source experts, prevented the free flow of the formats through the open source development community.  In an effort to trim costs, many governments, including the the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, are considering usage of open source software in lieu of more expensive "closed source" solutions like Microsoft Office.

Microsoft refused to budge.  And so, in a move that spawned significant technical, political, and hi tech industry controversies, the state set ODF as its official file format standard for creating, saving, editing, retrieving, and archiving the electronic versions of of its documents.  Microsoft Office is currently on about 90 percent of the state's desktops.  Other governments and large organizations have been contemplating similar moves. 

So, now the big question for many is, did Microsoft budge? I would argue that the even bigger question is "Even if Microsoft didn't budge, does it matter?"  Judging by the news reports, many of which bear a headline that explicitly states that Microsoft has opened its file formats, it certainly appears as though Microsoft has budged.   Most of those reports, however, were published by news organizations that are unfamiliar with the sort of hairsplitting that must be done to tell a completely open standard from one that is not quite so completely open. (I'm refraining from usage of the word "closed" because the patent license to Microsoft's Office XML Reference Schema makes the file format more open than any of its predecessors.)  For example, it's certainly much better for a specification like Microsoft's Office file formats to have the blessing of the ISO than not. 

However, in this case, all we know is that Microsoft's file formats will eventually get submitted for consideration by the ISO.  Approval is a completely different question.  Especially since ODF is already under consideration by the ISO for that organization's imprimatur.  This raises questions about what happens next at the ISO. Knowing that an alternative to ODF could land in its lap in the coming months, will the ISO put the brakes on its current deliberations over ODF until it can vet the two side by side?  Or, supposing ODF does get the ISO's imprimatur; under what conditions might the organization also give its imprimatur to Microsoft file formats? The bottom line on the ISO angle is that, so far, there's no guarantee that Microsoft's formats (or ODF for that matter) will get the standard organization's approval.  All anyone has to hang their hat on right now in terms of the ISO is that Microsoft has announced its intentions to seek the ISO's ratification.  Meanwhile, to Microsoft's fortunate advantage, most of the reports are discussing that intention as though ratification is a done deal.  It is not.  Lucky Microsoft.

One thing we know about ISO standards is that they're not necessarily "open" standards.  To be fair, "open" is in the eyes of the beholder and I'm sure there are some that might consider all ISO standards to be open standards.  But the definition of open is a moving target and some standards consortia like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) modernized what is meant by "open standard" by forcing contributors to its specifications to give up most of the rights normally afforded to them by virtue of their patents.  For example, the language currently found in Microsoft's patent license for its Office XML Reference Schema would most likely prevent the W3C from considering any Web technology to which the same licensing language is applied as a "recommendation." (The W3C calls its standards "recommendations.")  However, that same licensing language easily falls within the ISO's limits of acceptability for specifications under its consideration. 

In terms of whether Microsoft has budged or not, this raises the question of how, if at all, the licensing language will change.  Will it ease some of the restrictions that caused it to fail Massachusetts' test or will it stick by the existing license?  Again, I haven't been able to discuss the issue with any Microsoft officials yet and very little is known about the answer to this question.  While Microsoft has not published a new license, there is some evidence that Microsoft may be budging on its existing language.  A report by's Martin LaMonica stated that "As part of its standardization effort, Microsoft will change the license in order to remove 'virtually all the barriers' for developers working with the file formats." Via email, LaMonica gave me more details from his notes saying that the following quotes are attributable to Microsoft general manager Alan Yates:

"Along with moving to open standards we're going to be further expanding the license to make clear to virtually all developers that there are no barriers to working with the license" and "We're taking an approach that's basically a promise from Microsoft not to sue developers so it's a very simple very clear very high level promise."

Additionally, in his blog, Microsoft technology evangelist Robert Scoble quotes Microsoft's Jean Paoli as saying:

"We are offering a broad 'covenant not to sue' to anyone who uses our formats. This is a new approach that continues our open and royalty-free approach. We think it will be broadly appealing to developers, including most open source developers."

So, it sounds very much like Microsoft intends to loosen some of the restrictions that developers are forced to comply with under the current patent license for its Office XML Reference Schema.  But, I say that with some important caveats.  First, we have yet to see the covenant not to sue and second, Paoli says "most open source developers."  Not "all" open source developers.  "Most." What exactly is meant by this remains to be seen.  In particular, what Microsoft means by "most" deserves heavy scrutiny because the company already has public track record of misspeaking when it comes to the applicability of the Office formats license to open source development. 

In a prior round of interviews, Yates told me that "Our license may not be compatible with the GPL, but it is compatible with many other open source licenses."  But after I challenged him on the word "many," Yates fell back to a far less broadly applicable statement saying ""While it is beyond my capacity to analyze [all of the open source licenses listed on the Open Source Initiative's Web site], we think that there is no problem with the two most used, key alternatives to the GPL; the LGPL and the BSD licenses."  In other words, in the span of a couple of days, Microsoft went from saying "many" (there are 57 different open source licenses that are officially recognized by the Open Source Initiative) to two.  And even then, open source legal experts such as Larry Rosen didn't exactly agree with Microsoft's assessment (see MS-Office schema not as open source-friendly as Microsoft says it is).

Another foggy area of the announcement that will get clearer as time passes is the ECMA portion of the announcement.  ECMA is a technology consortium that's similar in structure to OASIS, the organization  that stewards the ODF specification.  There are two obvious reasons behind Microsoft's choice of ECMA as the organization that will steward the Office XML Reference Schema.  First, ECMA, as it turns out, is in a special class of consortia that can put a specification on the ISO's "fast track." Second, its intellectual property policy allows vendors to maintain a significant amount of legal control over the specifications they submit for "ratification." 

Microsoft used this "path" once before when it decided to submit certain subsets of its .NET technology -- the Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) and the C# programming language -- to the ISO for ratification as standards.  I touched on the implications of this move in a column that I wrote back in 2002 (see Will C# benefit Microsoft, or the industry?).  In yesterday's announcement, Microsoft stated that other ECMA members such as Apple , Barclays Capital, BP, the British Library, Essilor, Intel, NextPage, StatOil and Toshiba will be involved in the specific ECMA technical committee that's responsible for stewardship of the Office XML Reference Schema file formats.  But again, to the question of whether or not Microsoft has budged, recall that one of Massachusetts' requirements was that the specification be subject to multi-party stewardship.  What is so far unclear is the extent to which this part of the announcement qualifies.  Given the degree of legal control that ECMA intellectual property policy permits, the extent to which those other organizations will actually get involved in the stewardship of the file formats is unclear. Not only that, the actual structure of the technical committee-- including who is in charge, who gets to vote on proposed changes, etc.-- is so far unclear.

In a series of e-mails and phone calls with me yesterday, the Association for Competitive Technology's vice president of public affairs Morgan Reed III said that control of the OASIS technical committee that oversees the OpenDocument Format is deserving of equal scrutiny.  Wrote Reed, "it would appear that Sun and IBM are pretty dominant [when it comes to control of OpenDocument].  In fact, they have 6 votes, representing a full majority of the 11 non-probationary voting members."  It's a fair point which, in defining "openness" perhaps raises the question of how open these technical committees are to the involvement of additional parties and what it means to be a voting member. 

Microsoft for example is a member of OASIS and has been invited to participate in the deliberations of the consortium's ODF Technical Committee but hasn't so far.  In the case of OASIS, it is true that IBM and Sun -- two companies that have been squaring off against Microsoft on the issue of file formats in Massachusetts -- have a majority of the votes.  But, two things are important about those votes.  First, they are votes when it comes to deciding on the features of the specification and not on whether or not the specification gets the OASIS imprimatur. 

Not only is Microsoft free to join the technical committee, it is also free to send six representatives to all of the technical committee's meetings and then each of those representatives would get to vote on feature decisions.  In fact, the only requirement for an employee of a OASIS member organization like Microsoft to get "a vote" is to attend most of the meetings and deliberations (the organization frowns on absentee involvement).  Then, once a technical committee finishes its work, the specification advances to a higher level where each of OASIS' member organizations (Microsoft is one such member) gets a single vote.  For a specification to get the OASIS imprimatur,  at least 15 percent of the member organizations must approve and no more than 10 percent can disapprove.  In other words, once a specification advances from the technical committee to OASIS-level voting, little stands in the way of approval.  The bottom line is that Microsoft is free to get involved at a very active and influential level when it comes to ODF.

The question that must then be asked once the ECMA technical committee (TC) overseeing the Office XML Reference is officially formed is, to what extent other organizations -- Sun and IBM for example -- can not only join the TC, but influence the overall outcome as well.  I want to be clear here.  Just because I don't have the answer doesn't mean I'm implying that Sun and IBM don't have that opportunity. They may very well have it.  But, in an effort to get this out while I'm on vacation, I'm bypassing some research and just saying here's a question that deserves answering as the world looks to explore just exactly how much Microsoft has budged here and whether or not its Office XML Reference Schema has taken a giant step towards becoming the international open standard that most of the news is making it out to suddenly be.

Finally, there is the bigger question of whether any of this hairsplitting actually matters.  I'm reminded of the recent Halloween Hearing in Massachusetts where a state senator who, in the days before the hearing, was inspecting a weakened dam that was threatening to burst and flood the town of Taunton, MA, was presiding over the hairsplitting hearing.  Should the Office XML Reference Schema get the imprimatur of the ISO, it will most certainly weigh heavily on the decision-making process where ever there is someone who doesn't have the will, the time, or the interest to understand what the imprimatur of the ISO really means.  Imagine for example the expertise it requires for a wine expert to discern between two different appellations of the same wine from the same region. Then, ask a beer drinker to tell the same difference.  The beer drinker will tell you that both are wine. 

My point is that if this move by Microsoft gives the appearance of the company budging much more than it really has, I can't imagine asking decision makers like politicians to appreciate why, when the company's file formats have the approval of the ISO (if it gets that approval which again, is a big if), the formats still aren't as open as they need to be. In other words, if Microsoft actually budged and budged big, that will be a great sigh of relief for everyone.  But if it didn't, it may not matter anyway.  ODF's struggle just got markedly more difficult than it was the day before yesterday.  And, for those organizations that are waiting to make decisions about file formats in the longer term, it probably won't matter which format is more open than the other. What will matter and what has always mattered is how widespread the support from third parties is.  With so many companies-- including powerful ones like IBM, Sun, and Google-- behind ODF, things could eventually swing in ODF's favor.  But there's still time for those and other developers to support Microsoft's formats as well, which means ODF will have to dig in because it could be a long uphill David-and-Gliath battle for the new file format.