Microsoft: Why the ODF vs. OOXML battle matters

I had a chance to ask Tom Robertson, General Manager of Interoperability and Standards for Microsoft -- someone who has a lot invested in the ODF vs. OOXML contest -- a few questions regarding why folks should care about the never-ending file-format wars.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Hardly a week goes by without some new story on OpenDoc Format (ODF) vs. Office Open XML (OOXML) file-format wars grabbing headlines. This week, it's California is threatning to go the way of Massachusetts in decreeing that state agencies make ODF their document standard.

Microsoft's GM of Standards and Interop Tom RobertsonI haven't been one to give the ODF vs. OOXML battle much attention. But since nearly every other tech blogger and journalist seemed to find the ODF vs. OOXML contest endlessly fascinating, I couldn't help but wonder if I was missing something.

I had a chance to ask Tom Robertson, General Manager of Interoperability and Standards for Microsoft -- someone who has a lot invested in the ODF vs. OOXML contest -- a few questions regarding why folks should care about ODF and OOXML.

Here are my questions and Robertson's answers (exchanged via e-mail):

Q: There has been so much back-and-forth between Microsoft, IBM, Sun and other players in the desktop office suite space lately over ODF vs. OOXML. Why does Microsoft consider this important enough to dedicate so much time and energy to?

Robertson: The discussions around Open XML and ODF are a proxy for product competition in the marketplace. Ultimately, this attention and focus on the needs of those who use office productivity software is a good thing for all concerned, but the attention being paid relates back to the commercial opportunities for MS Office, IBM’s Workplace (Open Client), and OpenOffice commercial offerings from Sun and others. For us, the move to an XML-based file format is an important aspect of Office 2007.

Q: Who really cares about this ODF vs. OOXML battle? Is the subset of customers to whom this matters simply government users (for whom policies regarding open standards are premade by legislators)? Is this government-user segment a substantial part of Microsoft's customer base? (And is it possible to quantify its importance in some way?)

Robertson: Governments are the most concerned with the issue of ISO-standardized document formats. Not only do some governments have requirements to accept communications if they are presented in ISO-approved formats, but there are other factors as to why XML-based formats matter (such as long-term archival) as well. The concepts of interoperability, greater choice of solutions, and the ability to translate between formats are all important to governments. In general, we are not hearing about this issue from our enterprise or consumer customers – it is localized to governments today.

Q: To me, it seems like non-governmental users won't and don't care about which file formats their office apps use, given that Microsoft Office still has a more than 95% market share. If you run Office, you basically have to deal with OOXML and older Microsoft file formats. If you run something else, you better find out whether your apps can read/write the Microsoft formats? Am I oversimplifying here?

Robertson: We are always looking to improve the value our software delivers to customers – always. We heard from many customers that .pdf support was important, and you are familiar with what happened there. We support more than 30 other file formats (some standardized, some not) in the Office product because customers have a wide range of both choices and needs for formats. We think Open XML is a very compelling technology, and the work done in Ecma TC45 made it better (we made changes to the format in our final product based on input from companies such as Apple, Novell, and Toshiba as well as organization such as the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Library). Office 2007 enables people to choose from many formats, and now the Open XML Translator has enabled read and write capabilities for ODF as well.

Q: Again, based on what I am hearing from my readers, the bigger battle between file formats is more about the older Office formats and OOXML. Mac Office users still can't read OOXML-formatted documents (of which I've started receiving a few lately). Does Microsoft consider file-format incompatibilities within its own installed base is much of an area of concern?

Robertson: The short answer is yes. We developed the Compatibility Pack (that can be downloaded at http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=941b3470-3ae9-4aee-8f43-c6bb74cd1466&DisplayLang=en ) to ensure that Open XML works with older versions of Office. Our end goal is interoperability, and we are working with our partners to develop solutions for any incompatibilities that customers care about.

Q: Novell has said it plans to build OOXML support into a forthcoming version of OpenOffice. Is Microsoft planning to point to that capabilitiy/technology as providing the missing half of OOXML-ODF translation? What I mean here is the ODF translator recently developed and released by Microsoft and friends seems to be a one-way translator: It allows OOXML-based products to read and save ODF-based documents. It does not allow ODF-based suites to open and save OOXML-formatted documents. What is Microsoft telling customers who need a translator that provides the latter functionality?

Robertson: As the translation tools are developed and completed, they are made available on Microsoft Download Center , Office Online and Sourceforge . As far as we know, the Translator does translate, open and save back and forth between ODF and Open XML. Furthermore, it has been built as an independent piece of technology so that it may be used in other applications – not just office suites – but by anyone interested in translation (e.g. a document management application provider). Yes, Novell has said they are building it into OpenOffice. It is an open source project and available for anyone to use.

Other questions I should have asked Robertson? (Who knows, maybe he'll entertain a few more....) 


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