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05.27.08

The Big Stories Behind the ‘Story’ of OOXML

Posted in ECMA, Europe, Microsoft, Open XML, OpenDocument, Standard at 12:49 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

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In this hazy cloud of the CNNs and BBCs of our world, it would be far too easy to miss the more profound analyses of the state of OOXML. It’s worth highlighting a few particular reports that dig deeper beneath the surface.

OOXML Still Unavailable

OOXML might indeed be a "dead format walking". Since the very beginning of the month we have been waiting for something to arrive. Many waited for a final version to arrive from ECMA (ITTF, see correction at the bottom) and complained about lack of response.

We got nothing. We were told nothing. Everyone still complains and total disregard for the process is ever more evident. According to the following new report from South Africa, the reason for this perpetual delay is not what we initially had in mind and suspected; it’s not about hiding the flaws but perhaps more about the inability to get the thing done. It’s a mess.

The third objection is that despite obligation to publish a final version of the standard within a month of the meeting it is almost two months since the ballot resolution meeting and no standard has been published, suggesting the OOXML format is indeed too complicated.

Later came an implicit admission from Microsoft itself, acknowledging that it had experienced great difficulties with OOXML. It tried to put a positive spin on this and characterise itself as one that opens up, not gives up. It said it was embracing ODF — whatever that 'embrace' really means. Leaving the abuse of the proces behind is another peril.

ComputerWorld: “Arm-Twisting, Committee-Packing, Bribery…”

Microsoft may have cleared several hurdles, but people do not so easily forget how Microsoft behaved, despite the systematic and despicable denials. It was a refreshing change to find the mainstream press disseminating the following article trough the IDG tubes, which includes ComputerWorld. Rarely do you find the company accused of “bribery” in the trade journals, probably due to risk of libel lawsuits. So this one is an exception.

OK, try to follow this: Microsoft has spent the past two years slamming its Open XML file format through the process to make it an international standard. Along the way, there’s been arm-twisting, committee-packing, bribery and other chicanery. But by last week, Microsoft was one step away from success.

And that’s when Microsoft adopted a competing standard.

Sound crazy? Sure — until you learn that Microsoft’s own products don’t actually conform to the standard that Microsoft has been twisting arms to pass. And that the competing standard, the OpenDocument format (ODF), will actually be easier to add to Microsoft Office than Open XML would be.

Microsoft may have realised this a long time ago. It could probaly confess that ODF is better, but had it done so, it would not have managed to get OOXML down ISO’s throat. What we have here is a self-serving itinerary. Microsoft decided to ignore and to mock ODF in order to ensure multiple standards exist (including its own pseudo-standard, which reuses proprietary modules due to laziness). Then, having done the damage, it can swing the other way, beat the bushes for a while, and then return to the proprietary agenda, having causes enough harm and confusion.

ODF Coming Along Nicely

Regardless of Microsoft’s plans for ODF, some nations, such as the Netherlands, have requirements that are stricter than most. Their intention is — in the long term at least — to adopt Free software and regain digital autonomy. Microsoft Office is therefore excluded while ODF is a prerequisite to the long-term goal.

Open standards and open source are not the same thing, but Microsoft goes out of its way to cause such confusion (this is a reference to the Times of India, but also see this more recent example from Reuters, right at the bottom). According to this document from the European Commission, another important step has been completed by the Dutch.

The Dutch Council of State is willing to open source its application that can centrally convert documents between open formats and proprietary formats, said Marcel Pennock, the tool’s developer, Wednesday at a conference on Open Document Format (ODF) in Utrecht.

[...]

The tools converts Microsoft documents to Open Document Format and the other way around. Documents can also be saved as Portable Document Format (pdf). The council’s IT department is also considering a document management system that will be using the conversion tool. “We have not decided if that document system will be built as Open Source or not. For the past fifteen years we have been working with proprietary documents. Changing that is not done instantly.”

Parts of the world have moved on, especially in Europe and South America. Microsoft will the best it can to just move along and be part of this trip. It’s like that friend nobody wants to drag along.

It is important — even crucial — not to be misled by this. As The Guardian emphasised over the weekend, “Microsoft is poised to shift from open to closed.” Yes, in reality, that’s the direction Microsoft it taking. Consider the shift from HTML to XAML for instance (proprietary and patent-encumbered lock-in, which it markets as "Open-Source Compatible” although it excludes GNU/Linux).

Microsoft became more sophisticated in the way it disguises that shift from consensus (standards) to closed (proprietary), using words like “Open” just for advertising purposes. Remember Live Mesh, which portrays and markets itself as “open”, but does not support GNU/Linux. Many other examples exist which are recent enough to be noteworthy, but not in this post (due to scope).

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9 Comments

  1. Tomas de Torquemada said,

    May 27, 2008 at 2:10 am

    Gravatar

    “Many waited for a final version to arrive from ECMA and complained about lack of response.”

    Why would they be waiting for a document from Ecma? Last time I checked IS29500 was an ISO standard. The only people that the IS29500 project editor would give a document to would be ISO/ITTF, Ecma are not involved at this point.

    If you’re waiting for a document from Ecma then you’re going to have to wait until v2 of Ecma 376 appears. That won’t be IS29500 though, it will be Ecma 376 v2.

    Sometimes your posts are just confused Roy.

  2. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 27, 2008 at 2:48 am

    Gravatar

    Read what Alex Brown said a week ago.

  3. AlexH said,

    May 27, 2008 at 3:17 am

    Gravatar

    He said:

    “The final DIS 29500 text was meant to be submitted by Ecma, and then distributed to National Bodies by 29 March 2008. Ecma duly submitted a text on time but this text has remained with ITTF.”

    So Tomas is right. Ecma is not at fault and are not responsible for the distribution of the standard; it’s the ITTF who are holding things up.

  4. Tomas de Torquemada said,

    May 27, 2008 at 5:23 am

    Gravatar

    Yes, I did read what Alex Brown said a week ago… clearly you didn’t.

  5. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 27, 2008 at 6:15 am

    Gravatar

    I’ll fix the text. Thanks for the correction, Tomas.

  6. Stephane Rodriguez said,

    May 27, 2008 at 6:46 am

    Gravatar

    I entirely disagree on what the article suggests.

    Microsoft won. They wanted the ISO timestamp. They got it. They needed it since governments want such thing for documents now.

    OOXML? It’s just a rough specs, as it has always been. The share of undocumented stuff in that document is the same than in the past, and I don’t think that it is even intentional. To understand why this is the case, you only have to consider the fact that Microsoft was not prepared to go to ISO when they were working on Office 2007. They rushed it through with some of the internal documents they had. But it is important that those documents are handy when you have the source code with it, otherwise it’s just a puzzle and any implementer has to go through reverse engineering to really implement anything significant of it.

    The delay on supporting OOXML? I think you did not get the memo. Most changes checked in through the BRM were just cosmetic ones. Those who blogged on the BRM made it very clear that Microsoft insisted that no change that would break Office 2007 documents would be accepted. Estimation of time needed to implement the changes : a few days. Remember that the Office team at Microsoft is a thousand people group.

    The native (and naive) support of ODF in Office 2007? That is a trick to please governments so that Microsoft appears has a nice group of people, not the nazis that they are.

    Future of OOXML? Frankly, who freaking cares the paper? This paper will ALWAYS be at odds with the actual Office implementation. We have a good example for the time being, but it has always been the case.

    Conclusion : about time to move on guys.

  7. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 27, 2008 at 7:07 am

    Gravatar

    Do you not think it is important to show those involved what OOXML is about? The trick is to inform if not to intercept.

    What you did not mention is that Microsoft wants to have the cake and eat it too at the moment — pretending/faking niceties by ‘supporting’ both Closed XML *and* ODF (in vapour mode, on paper).

  8. Stephane Rodriguez said,

    May 27, 2008 at 7:13 am

    Gravatar

    “What you did not mention is that Microsoft wants to have the cake and eat”

    Fair enough. I mentioned it before, but yes I can say it again. Microsoft is not a charity business. They are well versed in killing competitors. ODF is the next victim. Their distribution power (of whatever support of ODF will come with it) is what will kill it. Microsoft has no intention to genuinely support ODF.

  9. Roy Schestowitz said,

    May 27, 2008 at 7:23 am

    Gravatar

    We stress this repeatedly. Nobody is fooled, but I try to abstain the use of phrases like “the nazis that they are” Instead, let us use evidence that speaks for itself.

    As Microsoft said recently, “Human Greed Has No Bounds” (it was also the title of an article). Nothing has changed.

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