Microsoft’s 4th of July Trans-Atlantic assault on document standards

On what is normally a slow period for news, Microsoft launched a concerted campaign to displace ODF and PDF as document access and retention standards on both sides of the Atlantic. Microsoft has proposed and lobbied for OOXML as an alternative to ODF and XPS as an alternative to Adobe’s PDF.

On what is normally a slow period for news, Microsoft launched a concerted campaign to displace ODF and PDF as document access and retention standards on both sides of the Atlantic. Microsoft has proposed and lobbied for OOXML as an alternative to ODF and XPS as an alternative to Adobe’s PDF. Having been burned by Open Document Format (ODF) in the past, Microsoft is leading a new campaign to influence standards bodies, lobby governments, and educate the public on the desperate need for new standards rather than or in addition to existing ones. A successful document standard will affect the access, usage and control of office documents and records for decades to come. The latest battles could be seen during the 4th of July week in Massachusetts, Florida and the United Kingdom. Of all the standards in information management, document standards may end up having the most profound productivity and interoperability effect of any standard. It’s been said that ten times as much information is stored in unstructured documents as is stored in database management systems. Standards provide the means by which users can access old information, even a hundred years from now, and two different organizations can exchange information. If there are no universally recognized standards, then there can be no interoperability. If there are too many standards, this can have the affect of no standards at all. Microsoft would like to ensure that at least one of those standards is Open Office XML (OOXML).

Last week in Massachusetts, a draft of the state’s Enterprise Information Technology Architecture included OOXML as an acceptable office document standard in common with the OASIS Open Document Format. Microsoft is presenting this standard through the auspices of ECMA International with the intention of moving it on to ISO. The draft indicated that OOXML was supported by Microsoft Office 2007, NeoOffice 2.1 (an OpenOffice fork for the Apple Macintosh) and OpenOffice Novell Edition and that Corel had announced support in WordPerfect 2007. OOXML is the description of the XML used in the Microsoft Office file format for Word, Excel and PowerPoint. This puts OOXML back on a level footing with ODF in the Massachusetts state government.

In Florida the previous week, Robin Miller blogged that Microsoft lobbied that state’s legislature to avoid wording in legislation that required open data formats quietly added by a representative to a new senate bill. The injected wording directed the state’s IT governance bodies to "develop a plan and business case analysis for the creation, exchange, maintenance of state agencies in an open format" that is capable of being published without restriction and "fully and independently implemented by multiple software vendors." Well prepared lobbyists, described by Robin as "Men in Black", caught and eliminated the wording.

Meanwhile in Britain, Microsoft UK general manager, Gordon Frazer, started the week with a somewhat doom-laden announcement made through the BBC, warning of a looming "digital dark age" where knowledge would be lost forever. "Historically within the IT industry, the prevailing trend was for proprietary file formats. We have worked very hard to embrace open standards, specifically in the area of file formats," said Frazer. Ironically, much, if not most, of this lost information described was created by Microsoft’s own Office tools. As part of this announcement, which focused on providing virtualization services for previous versions of Microsoft Office and Windows, Microsoft featured the UK National Archives and the British Library, organizations that are important to document use in the UK government.

On the 4th of July, my colleague Ian Howells attended a meeting organized by the National Computing Centre in London to bring the OOXML and ODF camps together. It was attended by Microsoft, Adobe, British Standards Institute, representatives of ODF, where both sides exchanged heated arguments. Michael Gough from the NCC started by announcing, "…some moves that have already occurred, such as the adoption of the OOXML by the British Library and National Archive." These are the same organizations that had worked with Microsoft on their virtualization initiatives. At this point, both the OOXML and ODF camps held their ground and debated some of the intricacies of the two specs. Microsoft was well-prepared for bringing OOXML into the UK lining up support from key agencies.

During the meeting, Microsoft argued that OOXML was supported by other vendors and had been standardized by ECMA with the intention of moving it on to ISO. They positioned ODF as an interchange format, while OOXML is a format to describe current and past document formats with greater fidelity than ODF to preserve the content these past documents. Microsoft’s argument was that OOXML is more comprehensive and inclusive of features in the formats like Microsoft Office 95. When pressed on what those features are, Microsoft’s primary examples were around equations rather than more typical features used by most office document users. Microsoft promised to get back with more examples.

Proponents of ODF pressed on having accessibility and interoperability from Microsoft Office arguing that interoperability required the ability to save documents in other formats like ODF. Microsoft said that they had no plans to provide a “SaveAs” for ODF, but that the two standards could coexist. The ODF camp disagreed questioning why the two sides could not work together on a common standard with the Microsoft side responding that their customers would not accept another file format change. A representative of the British Standards Institute remarked that both standards are complicated and incomplete and that the 6000 page specification for OOXML is too long. ODF by comparison is 762 pages. The meeting ended with no consensus and a lot of disagreement.

The previous Friday, Microsoft made a stealthy move to standardize XPS in the same way they have OOXML. ECMA quietly announced that it is convening a technical committee to adopt XPS (XML Paper Specification) with the first meeting slated for July 23 in Cambridge, UK. XPS is Microsoft’s print spooler format for Vista and a replacement for both PDF and PostScript. XPS has a longer way to go given the decade long head start of PDF and PDF’s induction as an OASIS standard. Having used ECMA as a path to standardization of OOXML, Microsoft apparently is going down the same path with XPS bringing along Fuji Xerox for the ride. For both XPS and OOXML, ECMA is an easier path to getting ISO standardization than others.

Microsoft had previously been blindsided by the standardization of ODF by the State of Massachusetts and Belgium. I had spoken to Peter Strickx last year after the Belgian government’s decision to use ODF as a standard to exchange documents between government agencies. It appears that their decision had caught Microsoft by surprise and on their back foot. This time rather than being defensive, Microsoft is very much taking the offensive in proactively creating standards and lobbying to ensure that alternative formats are not used where possible. Indeed, it appears as though Microsoft has been willing to compromise on issues like patent control in order to preserve the primacy of the default Microsoft file formats. Groklaw has a timeline of events in Massachusetts to help illustrate the politics and positioning.

With OOXML and XPS, Microsoft has chosen to not work with existing standards, but to create new ones, as they have in their recent announcement on Web3S instead of working with the rest of the industry on the Atom Publishing Protocol. In the case of OOXML, this is a logical move on Microsoft’s part, since it is an evolution of Microsoft’s XML strategy started with the Microsoft Office 2003 version and ODF will be a technology diversion from that strategy. With Microsoft controlling 90% of the office productivity tools market and OOXML being the default file format for Microsoft Office 2007, OOXML is likely to be widely-used.

However, Microsoft’s efforts to make OOXML a recognized standard are not guaranteed. The British Standards Institute has publicly recommended that OOXML not be given fast track status to ISO standard. In addition, with Microsoft providing primary control of OOXML and with a long 6000 page specification, many question how a standard based on OOOXML could evolve in the future and who can really influence or recommend changes in that file format. ODF on the other hand is a standard built in the more open OASIS body with the participation of Adobe, IBM, Intel, Novell and Sun. However, without the widespread usage that the Microsoft Office format has, users wonder if there is there enough momentum behind ODF as alternative file format to not just create the main standard file format, but to even remain an alternative.

The answers to these questions will have an extremely long-term impact. Public documents and corporate records from this century are likely to be read in the next century by these standards. The operation and fabrication of what will be old equipment and components will rely on the ability to read these documents. Knowledge stored in these documents will either be retained or lost forever. NASA engineers working on the new next-generation Orion space craft know longer have access to a lot of the metallurgical and structural information created by their counterparts who build Apollo. Cooperation, openness and standardization are the preventative measures that we can take to prevent the same from occurring in the future. Will Microsoft be open enough or will ODF have enough momentum to allow us to have control of the destiny of these documents?