Microsoft OOXML SDK renews standards debate

Are adherents on both sides making the wrong arguments?

With the non-decision from the ISO standards body last month on whether or not to adopt Microsoft OOXML (Open Office XML) file format as an industry standard and Microsoft's decision to release the OOXML SDK next month, the discussions over whether or not OOXML is worthy of being a standard is expected to become heated once again.

After Microsoft issued its rendition of OOXML in September it went up for ISO approval but failed. However, it was approved by ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association. Although it didn't get a passing grade from the more prestigious ISO, there were many "comments" suggesting ways to improve the specification.

ECMA revised the spec, and that is what the SDK is now based on and the one being presented to ISO for a second time.

The debate, however, continues to focus on whether or not OOXML is actually an open format that can be used by any desktop productivity application or is it simply a new but proprietary Microsoft file format that locks users in to the Microsoft way of doing things.

Those arguments are actually misplaced -- not that both sides don't have a hand in spinning the debate this way -- and misrepresent the real purpose of OOXML as well as the purpose of its rival ODF (Open Document Format).

What's at stake is Microsoft's huge installed base of Office users, according to Guy Creese, an analyst with the Burton Group.

Sun and IBM, two vocal supporters of ODF, see it as a way to get into the Microsoft installed base and gain millions of dollars of business, while Microsoft fears that ODF could erode a significant portion of its base.

Some European governments as well as the Massachusetts state government have already made their decision in favor of ODF.

"What you actually have are two standards both in area of file formats but both designed to solve different problems for different constituencies," says Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst at Illuminata.

OOXML was purpose built to limit the threat of ODF by offering an alternative format also based on XML. But at the same time, a new file format from Microsoft has to support legacy Microsoft documents created in older Office formats, adds Creese.

Eunice points out that the code in OOXML sometimes references the way things were done in Office years even decades ago.

ODF, on the other hand, comes from a different place. Its world view, one might say, is different, built to solve a different kind of problem for interoperability, according to Creese.

Both the threat of being locked into a Microsoft standard and promise of interoperability with a wide swath of disparate applications that have nothing to do with Microsoft Office may be why many local, state, and national governments, as well as school systems, are considering standardizing on ODF.

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In addition, supporters of ODF say the OOXML spec is large and unwieldy and that there is no need for that level of complexity.

But supporters of ODF can only make that claim because ODF solves a different problem. It has no interest in supporting legacy Microsoft applications and typically supports less rich office productivity suites like Star Office from Sun and Open Office, the Oasis specification.

"You get into these debates based on fundamental beliefs and assumptions that are often times not brought up. It is argued from point of view that people don't really see," said Creese.

Yes, one might say OOXML is a new Microsoft file format while ODF wants to become a universal file format, adds Eunice.

Bob Sutor, IBM vice president of Open Source and Standards at IBM says OOXML is so huge that in order to implement it, a company would be locked into that format.

Jean Paoli, general manager for Interoperability and XML Architecture at Microsoft says ODF reflects what OpenOffice can do. OpenXML reflects the capabilities that Microsoft Office has.

While the scales may tip in favor of ODF as a simpler and more open specification than OOXML, both Creese and Eunice say the fact that both are XML formats is good because users want better access to all kinds of content, and it's easier to do that from within an XML format rather than from a binary system.

However reluctant either analyst is to take sides, Creese adds this advice: "We believe that Microsoft owns 90 percent of the Office environment and [that] it is better to use the standard that is friendly with the huge installed base."