Microsoft file standard offers 'minimum openness'

Sun's patent statement around OpenDocument is 'far superior' to Microsoft's statement around Office Open XML, according to a legal expert

Microsoft has not gone far enough in making its Office formats open, according to a US lawyer.

Microsoft announced plans earlier this month to submit its Office 12 file formats to the European standards body ECMA International. But Andy Updegrove, a lawyer at Gesmer Updegrove LLP, claimed last week that Microsoft's patent statement around called Office Open XML, its proposed 'open' file format, is less open than Sun's agreement for OpenDocument.

"The Sun covenant [not to sue] is far superior in several important respects to the Microsoft pledge," said Updegrove, in an analysis published last week.

He pointed out that Microsoft's covenant has been published on its own Web site, while Sun's was published by OASIS, the independent standards body that approved OpenDocument.

"That Web page is completely under the control of Microsoft, which can change it any time, and as often as it wishes," said Updegrove.

"Thus, until ECMA adopts the formats as a standard, Microsoft can do whatever it wishes, and implementers would need to follow, in order to maintain current compatibility, even if the formats go in a direction they don't like," Updegrove said. "Or, Microsoft could add new functionalities to its own Office products that lie outside the current formats, and not include them in the covenant, giving it an advantage over competitors."

Updegrove also pointed out that Microsoft only reserves the right to protect itself against a patent attack, while Sun has reserved the right to protect itself and any organisation implementing OpenDocument. He claimed that company politics may have influenced Microsoft when it drew up the covenant.

"I'm told by those I know in Microsoft that making such a covenant was a difficult and contentious decision internally, and it would be tough to sell internally more than the absolute minimum necessary to arguably do the job," he said.

A few days after posting the initial comparison, Updegrove published an additional analysis of the Microsoft covenant by itself, after criticism from "friends at Microsoft" that it was "unfair" to compare the two covenants on the way he had.

In this analysis, Updegrove claimed that the new covenant is a "significant improvement" on Microsoft's previous attempts at openness, but justified his comparison by pointing out that OpenDocument has already been approved as a standard and is already supported by several products.

"From this market perspective, Microsoft arguably needs to go farther than Sun, rather than less far, to provide equivalent comfort to those currently choosing between [OpenDocument] and the Microsoft schemas. The reason is because ECMA has not yet taken control of the XML schemas, much less adopted them. Until then Microsoft still controls (and can therefore change) the formats, or could withdraw the formats from ECMA if it was not pleased with the direction that the ECMA working group wished to go," said Updegrove.

Microsoft's attempt at standardising its Office formats was also criticised by an analyst last week, who said it was merely a "tactical move" to give its proprietary document formats a "glimmer of openness".