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ECMA Open XML Approved Despite IBM Objection

As was expected, the ECMA approved Microsoft's Office Open XML file format today, despite the lone objection of IBM.

Approval of the specification, however, was not unanimous. IBM said it voted against Open XML, saying OpenDocument, which is the default format in OpenOffice, is a "vastly superior" format, and another standard was unnecessary.

"It (OpenDocument) is an example of a real open standard versus a vendor-dictated spec that documents proprietary products via XML," Bob Sutor, vice president for open source and standards for IBM, said in his blog. "ODF is about the future, Open XML is about the past. We voted for the future."

IBM, according to Microsoft, was the only Ecma member to give the thumbs down. Microsoft's public relations firm also circulated via e-mail a statement from the Initiative for Software Choice praising the approval.

In a blog entry by Andrew Shebanow, he also raises concerns about whether Open XML is a "One Way Standard", echoing earlier concerns whether Open XML is even able to be fully implemented by anyone other than Microsoft, or if only as a subset providing limited interoperability. On his Shebanation blog, Shebanow notes the gargantuan effort that Mac MS Office team must undertake to implement their own standard:

Today, though, a couple of interesting things happened that made me want to write about this. The first is that ECMA approved the Office XML standard over IBM’s objections. That got me thinking about Bob’s piece again. The other is that Rick Schaut of Microsoft’s Mac BU wrote an article explaining very eloquently why the Mac version of Office won’t support the Open XML file format until sometime next year. What struck me when I read the latter piece is that Rick absolutely, positively proves Bob Sutor’s point when he explains what it would take to create a file converter from scratch for Mac Word:

[…] a team of 5 developers will implement 25 handlers a week, which means that we’d have all the XML handlers written in 44 weeks. […] Nevertheless, we’ve taken a little less than a year to get the converters reading the new file format. We still aren’t writing the new file format, we have the RTF side of things to worry about, which is actually more complex than the XML side, and I’ve completely left out all of the design and coding for the intermediate representation of the file. The intermediate representation, itself, is at least 6 to 8 months worth of work.

Got that? It would take 5 developers a year to do a quarter of the work. That means the whole job is roughly 20 man-years of development time. That doesn’t include testing, documentation, or localization. That would probably double the number of man-years, at least. But it gets worse...

Much worse, since these figures are just for Word. Taking into account the other products in the suite, by Shebanow's calculations, it would take Microsoft 120 man years to implement it themselves. In fact, Microsoft is instead porting the Windows version of the converter to Mac, since it will take less time (this explains why Mac Office users must wait for Windows Office to be done, so they can port it.) Shebanow's estimate in man-hours for a competing personal productivity application to fully implement ECMA Open XML: 150 Man Years!

Apparently, Open XML is purposefully overreaching, with the ability of those who implement the format to provide varying functionality and levels of interoperability seen as a strength by the ECMA (emphasis mine):

At this point, maintenance of the Ecma Open XML standard moves from Microsoft to Technical Committee 45 of Ecma International (no longer all-caps). While supporting vendors remain free to innovate their own functionality, changes to the standard itself must now be approved by TC45.

[...]

"Thanks to the depth of the technical resources the TC45 created, the Open XML standard covers the full set of features used in the existing corpus of billions of documents," reads an Ecma statement this afternoon. "Developers have the flexibility to decide whether they want to take advantage of subsets or the full feature set of the Office Open XML formats. In addition, the format enables organizations to integrate productivity applications with information systems that manage business processes by enabling the use of custom schemas within Open XML documents."

As was pointed out by IBM's Bob Sutor some time ago, Open XML is Microsoft's marketing tactic, a pseudo-standard in name only designed to keep their Office products at the center of the IT universe by limiting interoperability with competing products.

Fully and correctly implementing Open XML will require the cloning of a large portion of Microsoft’s product. Best of luck doing that, especially since they have over a decade head start. Also, since they have avoided using industry standards like SVG and MathML, you’ll have to reimplement Microsoft’s flavor of many things. You had better start now. So therefore I conclude that while Microsoft may end up supporting most of Open XML (and we’ll have to see the final products to see how much and how correctly), other products will likely only end up supporting a subset.

That means that other products and software, in practice, will NOT be able to understand arbitrary Open XML that might be thrown at them. There is just too much. Therefore they will only create a bit that they need and send that off. Send it off to whom? The only software that might understand it, namely Microsoft Office.

So this is how I see this playing out: Open XML will be nearly fully read and written by Microsoft products, but only written in subset form by other software. This means that data in Open XML form will be largely sucked into the Microsoft ecosystem but very little will escape for full and practical use elsewhere.

All "standards" are not equal.

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