Microsoft prepares for final OOXML battle

Weeks out from a crucial ISO vote in Geneva on the ratification of Microsoft's proposed Open XML standard, Microsoft is engaged in a last ditch campaign to convince the wider industry that its endeavours are in the best interests of users.
Written by Brett Winterford, Contributor

Weeks out from a crucial ISO vote in Geneva on the ratification of Microsoft's proposed Open XML standard, Microsoft is engaged in a last ditch campaign to convince the wider industry that its endeavours are in the best interests of users.

After its first attempt to have Open XML approved as an ISO standard failed in September, the software giant has spared no expense to ensure that it succeeds at the Ballot Resolution Meeting in February. Microsoft has hosted four conference calls a week with national standards bodies, and recently invited international press to a conference close to its Redmond, Washington headquarters to set the record straight on the OOXML issue.

A stream of Microsoft executives consecutively took to the floor at the press conference to defend the company against its growing army of critics.

Several themes were re-iterated.

The first was debunking the notion that there is no need for a second XML standard in the market. Advocates of the Open Document Format (ODF), an ISO-approved open standard XML file format developed by a consortium led by IBM and Sun, argue that a second standard is "redundant".

Microsoft says that there is nothing wrong with having multiple file formats. The company cannot adopt ODF in its own Office suite, it says, because it cannot migrate the legacy of billions of documents in older Microsoft formats onto it. But it does allow users to export their file in ODF format.

"Any investment we make in the future of information work has to take into account what has been done in the past," said Microsoft Office project manager Gray Knowlton. "It's very important when migrating to open file formats that we take older documents in to account."

"ODF was designed to omit the functionality of existing documents," he said. "We, on the other hand, cannot start from scratch. Our customers would never accept that."

It was also argued, on several fronts, that Open XML is a superior standard to ODF.

"Many customers tell us that ODF doesn't meet their needs," said Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft. "It doesn't provide backwards compatibility, nor does it reflect the rich feature set of Office 2007."

Present at the briefing was Burton Group research director Peter O'Kelly, who the week prior had authored a controversial report that recommended enterprise users adopt Open XML in preference to ODF.

O'Kelly described ODF as being "simplistic", while Open XML was described as "more powerful and expressive".

The Microsoft alternative, he said, scores points for its ability to incorporate custom schemas, its wider variety of table options and its spreadsheet formula language.

"It is not that there is anything wrong with OpenOffice.org, it's just that in large organisations, the types of things you are working with are more akin to what [Microsoft] Office can handle," he said. "ODF is a fine open source offering and it's a capable product, but put it side by side with the things you can do with Office 2007 and it's a very different user experience. There are things you might take for granted within Office that simply aren't there."

O'Kelly said he was "unpleasantly surprised" at the vitriol directed at his research organisation since he backed Microsoft's argument.

"This is not a Microsoft sponsored report," he said. "We don't do any sponsored writing at all -- no white papers."

Further, he said that it was "coincidental" that the report was released three working days before Microsoft's press briefing and only a few weeks out from the crucial vote.

"We didn't mean to pick a fight," he said, claiming that the Open XML report was one of three on document processing technologies written in series. "I think too many people are confusing open standards with open source. And too many people think that what's bad for Microsoft is good for the industry."

Process is "above board"
Microsoft also used the opportunity to defend itself against accusations that the company "bought votes" in an attempt to have Open XML approved as an open standard.

Robertson said Microsoft has been on an evolutionary path to move to XML-based documents for about 10 years. Thus, Open XML was far more than a "knee jerk response" to the success of ODF within various government departments around the globe.

Users and partners had demanded, he said, that Microsoft make its new XML format transparent. It was the wish of the European Commission, he said, for Microsoft to hand over control of the spec to the community through a standardisation process of its choice.

Microsoft chose the European standards body, ECMA, Robertson said, because it has a "very high standing in the community" The 50-year-old organisation has worked on standards for such technologies as CD-ROM and the C# programming language.

It is certainly not unusual to then take an ECMA approved standard through to the International Standards Organisation (ISO), he said.

"ECMA takes 90 percent of its formats through to the ISO process," he said.

It also isn't unusual, he said, for a standard that has already been approved by a respected body to go through ISO's "fast-track" process, which halves the amount of time national standards bodies have to assess its merits.

Jean Paoli, Microsoft's senior director of XML technologies and member of the ECMA TC45 committee charged with administrating the Open XML standard said that TC45 has a wide base of participants including Intel and Apple and representatives from users such as BP, Barclays Capital and the British Library.

Paoli said that the TC45 group has worked every day since the failed September vote to rectify the standard according to the 3255 critical comments made by national standards bodies.

Once duplications were removed, there were only 1000 unique comments, he said, the majority being editorial (eg. grammatical) mistakes, the rest being bugs he attributed to Microsoft's legacy of attempting backwards compatibility.

"There are some things in the standard that were expressed simply because we needed to move legacy documents to XML," Paoli said.

"We are preparing the future, but also migrating binary documents. Anybody that works on Wall Street would want whatever is in an Excel spreadsheet in an XLX spreadsheet. We cannot just go and change the spreadsheet used by the financial community. We need to give them a migration path to this new world of XML. We're talking about billions of documents."

Paoli said that the industry, to some degree, has voted already. Apple is including Open XML as an option in its Leopard operating system, as is Adobe in InDesign and Novell in SUSE Open Office. Several Linux flavours are only a few steps behind.

"It obviously works," he said. "Apple, Novell, Turbolinux, Google can all do it. For somebody like Apple to bake natively the format into their operating system, it says a lot."

Brett Winterford travelled to Redmond as a guest of Microsoft.

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