Monday, April 07, 2008

Microsoft wins OOXML standard

The geeks are up in arms because Microsoft has won approval of its much maligned Office Open XML (OOXML) format as an open standard. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has finally allowed OOXML to become an international standard after its initial rejection last year, but the decision still can be appealed.

Why is this controversial, and why should we care? You may already be familiar with OOXML, if you own Office 2007 (or 2008 for Mac), then you are using it; you know, the annoying .docx file format that is not fully backward compatible. However, the format is much better than previous XML schema used in the likes of Office 2003, and despite the many problems with backward compatibility, I must admit that it does produce nice PowerPoints. One problem highlighted with the OOXML is that it is protected by various patents. While holding a patent over a standard technology is not such a problem, Microsoft's history of abusing a dominant position has made some people nervous. Under current standardisation practice, patent holders must offer their patented technology subject to standard approval on a Reasonable and Non Discriminatory basis (RAND). Arguably, Microsoft has fulfilled this requirement by issuing the
Microsoft Open Specification Promise, a unilateral promise of non-enforcement of their claims on OOXML. Nevertheless, many people have been suspicious of the promise.

The other problem with the OOXML format is that it has been pitted against the Open Document Format (ODF), the one favoured by the open source community and developed for the Open Office project. The ODF has already received ISO standard approval, which has raised questions about the need for a competing standard. There have also been serious issues about OOXML's approval procedure, with accusations of bribery and worse. The accusations have been so strident that there is talk of further action by the European Commission.

I must admit that at the moment I have not made up my mind. While I am disturbed by the many reports of browbeating and corruption, I am somehow troubled by the strident opposition from the open source community against the format. ODF has already been approved, and I believe that the battle should take place with the consumer. Open Document proponents should fight to make Open Office better, so that it will get wider adoption. In my experience there is a good window of opportunity at the moment, as Office 2007 has failed to capture the market, much like Vista has failed to dominate. Open Office and the Open Document standard then should take the fight directly to Microsoft, not at the ISO, but at the PC.


Laurence said...

The main issue seems to be that OOXML isn't actually a standard in the true sense, not least because its bloated documentation hits a ludicrous 6000 pages, and moreover it refers to behaviours in previous MS Office formats, the specifications of which are (famously) unavailable.

I've not read the specification myself(!) so I can't pretend to be an expert, but the issue does appear to be that OOXML is not an independently employable standard which could easily be implemented in other software with true interoperability (which, of course, is precisely what Microsoft wants).

Andres Guadamuz said...

Good points Laurence. I am not familiar with the actual specifications either, but there seems to be something rotten with the approval procedure indeed.

I guess that my argument is that if it is such a bloated format as some reports say, then it will be defeated in the market.

Wait... have I just advocated market regulation? I must be getting more conservative in my old age!

David Berry said...

Your argument is seriously lacking in an attention to political economy. Microsoft rule a massive amount of the desktop market, consequently by careful use of the old embrace and extend method they can further use document standards to ensure future lock-in to their products. Come on, Microsoft hasn't gone down the standards road for the sake of altruistic love.

To ask Open Office to compete in a market is nuts, especially when there is little of a market to compete in. Open standards prevent later abuse of a monopoly position and too right people should be suspicious of Microsoft - its not like they've done anything similar in the past is it...