OpenOffice may support OOXML

The popular free office suite will support Microsoft's new document standard if the market demands it, but OpenOffice.org warns that even the software giant itself will have trouble implementing OOXML
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

OpenOffice may support Microsoft's Office Open XML standard in future, but the organisation behind the open source productivity suite anticipates that everyone including Microsoft will have "difficulty" in making the format work.

The specification for Office Open XML (OOXML, or Open XML), was officially passed as fit-for-purpose by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on Wednesday, despite many allegations of improper practice in the voting process. It also appears that more than 3,000 technical questions surrounding the format have not been properly addressed, despite its passage through the ISO process.

Barring any formal complaints to ISO by the national standards bodies that are its members, OOXML will now be a rival standard to the OpenDocument Format (ODF), which was ratified by ISO two years ago.

Reaction to the news of OOXML's success was immediate. Mark Shuttleworth, the entrepreneur behind the most popular Linux distribution, Ubuntu, told ZDNet blogger Paula Rooney that "the ISO [had not been] not willing to admit that its process was failing horribly".

"[ISO] is an engineering old boys club and these things are boring so you have to have a lot of passion… then suddenly you have an investment of a lot of money and lobbying and you get artificial results," said Shuttleworth. "The process is not set up to deal with intensive corporate lobbying and so you end up with something being a standard that's not clear."

Shuttleworth also said that his company Canonical, which oversees Ubuntu, would "not… invest in trying to implement a standard that is poorly defined".

"If we get close to implementing it, Microsoft would move the goal post," Shuttleworth added. "Microsoft doesn't think it's bound by the standard."

OOXML is crucial to the future development of Microsoft's Office suite, and the chief rival to that product is the free OpenOffice suite. John McCreesh, the marketing lead for OpenOffice.org, the organisation behind the software, told ZDNet.co.uk that OpenOffice might have to support OOXML in future.

"We adopted ODF as our default document standard in response to pressures from the marketplace, particularly governments and public administrations," said McCreesh on Wednesday. "It's the same approach to OOXML — we'll wait and see if its widely adopted by the market. If it is and people start developing [to] it then we'll support it."

McCreesh warned, however, that the complexity of OOXML — the 3,000 unanswered technical issues stem in part from the specification's 6,000-page length — could stymie its implementation.

"Anyone, including Microsoft in future versions of its software, will have difficulty in implementing [OOXML]," said McCreesh. "I suspect that its technical flaws, rather than anything else, will limit its rate of uptake in the marketplace. There is only so much you can work around a bad specification."

McCreesh also claimed that Microsoft "used its position in the marketplace and its not inconsiderable lobbying powers to get an inferior-quality standard given the rubber stamp by ISO", and said OOXML "risks creating confusion in the marketplace".

"The whole beauty of a standard is you have one standard and everybody works to it," McCreesh said. "That's why the internet works so well — anyone can create a website. It would be difficult to see how the internet would work as it has if there had been two competing standards [rather than just HTML]."

Ovum analyst David Mitchell wrote on Wednesday that, in the immediate aftermath of the ISO's decision, "very little will change".

"Those who were protesting and opposing the Open XML progress through the standards process will still oppose it," wrote Mitchell on his company's blog. "The nature of their protest will evolve. To begin with, there have been challenges to the process — and these will continue."

Mitchell added that Microsoft would now have to "update its existing products and planned future products to support the format that was actually ratified", adding: "It is likely to take some time for this to be completed and Microsoft will also need to provide tools to convert from the existing Office 2007 formats into the new Open XML standard." He also warned that other developers "would not be wise… to ignore [OOXML]".

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