The OOXML Standard Brouhaha

by on April 2, 2008 · 24 comments

Monday’s news indicating that ECMA’s Office Open XML (OOXML) standard will be approved has some people crying foul about the whole thing.

In case you haven’t been following things, OOXML is a document format up for approval before the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). It’s been a wild and politicized process for what one would think would be a relatively objective task of evaluating a technical standard.

OOXML was developed by Microsoft, so obviously Microsoft has been pushing for its approval. Companies like IBM and Sun, which developed ODF, an existing document format standard, have been lobbying against approval.

Nothing new under the sun, as my colleague Morgan Reed writes on the ACT blog. IBM’s been lobbying for state procurement preferences for ODF for the past few years:

ODF was built with the clear intent of creating a fulcrum point for government intervention. So while I don’t dislike ODF as a format, I find the fact that IBM was trying to manipulate governments into doing their dirty work for them reprehensible. Governments should not mandate any specific standard, including OOXML.

Morgan’s point (other than poking fun at IBM for its recent ethics charge) is that there’s a difference between lobbying for the creation of a standard through a private standards body and lobbying government for procurement preferences to promote the standard. Ideally, it should be up to market forces (consumers and developers), not governments, to dictate the implementation of standards.

I think it’s helpful to keep this distinction in mind when reading the OOXML international standard brouhaha.

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Except, of course, that it is impossible to exchange and store documents both within governments and in the exchange with citizens withouth a explicit or implicit “mandate”.

    If you want to put a editable document online for people to download and fill out, what should the government do to “not mandate standards”? Maybe put the documents in all existings formats?

    The truth is governments needs to make a choice. It just happens that until recently Microsoft’s formats were the (monopolic) default. Hardly the result of market forces.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    In other news, Rent-A-Center has hired ACT and PFF to lobby governments to abandon the competitive bidding process and sign “rent to own” contracts for their electronics purchases.

    (I’m sure IBM would have been on the other side if their Lotus products had won the office document format war, though.)

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Except, of course, that it is impossible to exchange and store documents both within governments and in the exchange with citizens withouth a explicit or implicit “mandate”.

    If you want to put a editable document online for people to download and fill out, what should the government do to “not mandate standards”? Maybe put the documents in all existings formats?

    The truth is governments needs to make a choice. It just happens that until recently Microsoft’s formats were the (monopolic) default. Hardly the result of market forces.

  • http://linuxworld.com/community/ Don Marti

    In other news, Rent-A-Center has hired ACT and PFF to lobby governments to abandon the competitive bidding process and sign “rent to own” contracts for their electronics purchases.

    (I’m sure IBM would have been on the other side if their Lotus products had won the office document format war, though.)

  • Morgan Reed

    Carlos,

    The giant, gaping chasm of difference between explicit and implicit mandate is, from a libertarian perspective, all the difference in the world.

    For the government to choose a standard format, like say pdf for the distribution of tax information, it should make an examination of what has the broadest usage amongst ‘customers’. Which is exactly what the IRS did. Certainly there were competing products to pdf, but it clearly had dominant marketshare in that space. And before you think “open” was a part of the IRS decision tree, I’d remind you that pdf was not an ISO standard and wasn’t even an “open” standard when the IRS started using it.

    Yet what IBM sought to do was put the chicken before the egg. The ODF format did not, and does not have a compellingly large base of customers/users for the government to logically conclude that it should be the ‘implicit’ standard. Instead, IBM wanted the government to mandate the format in order to create the requisite marketplace for their product.

    And Microsoft’s dominance in the Office suite area comes from battling it out in the marketplace. It may have been brutal, bloody and ruthless, but MSOffice never enjoyed a legislative mandate in its successful beat down of WordPerfect and LotusNotes.

    If you are arguing that the government should ride to the rescue of every corporation that gets a whupping, that’s a different discussion. And given that BOTH IBM and Microsoft have endured the slings and arrows of anti-trust investigation, it’s hard to qualify IBM as a helpless damsel in distress.

  • http://blog.actonline.org Morgan Reed

    Carlos,

    In my haste to focus on implicit and explicit, my comment on IRS adoption of pdf could be read to imply that market position is the ONLY metric a government should use.

    Clearly that’s not the case. Rather, the government agency should be looking to act as a customer, describing what are the attributes it needs in a product to fulfill a need.

    For pdf, it clearly needed a widely used, readily available format that preserved non-text attributes when displayed on screen or printed out. Had there been a compelling application in the marketplace that did the job better, or added a capability that would have made the docs more useful, then that might have tipped the decision to something else.

    But in IBM’s case the ONLY compelling part of their product is that it ‘works exactly like the Microsoft product’. So to _legislate_ the use of the product doesn’t fit into any standard market rationale.

    I certainly hope that IBM and Sun do more to create an application that does something better, or faster, or in some obvious way creates new value. If they do that, the format the application uses by default will be an afterthought to consumers, government or otherwise.

  • Morgan Reed

    Carlos,

    The giant, gaping chasm of difference between explicit and implicit mandate is, from a libertarian perspective, all the difference in the world.

    For the government to choose a standard format, like say pdf for the distribution of tax information, it should make an examination of what has the broadest usage amongst ‘customers’. Which is exactly what the IRS did. Certainly there were competing products to pdf, but it clearly had dominant marketshare in that space. And before you think “open” was a part of the IRS decision tree, I’d remind you that pdf was not an ISO standard and wasn’t even an “open” standard when the IRS started using it.

    Yet what IBM sought to do was put the chicken before the egg. The ODF format did not, and does not have a compellingly large base of customers/users for the government to logically conclude that it should be the ‘implicit’ standard. Instead, IBM wanted the government to mandate the format in order to create the requisite marketplace for their product.

    And Microsoft’s dominance in the Office suite area comes from battling it out in the marketplace. It may have been brutal, bloody and ruthless, but MSOffice never enjoyed a legislative mandate in its successful beat down of WordPerfect and LotusNotes.

    If you are arguing that the government should ride to the rescue of every corporation that gets a whupping, that’s a different discussion. And given that BOTH IBM and Microsoft have endured the slings and arrows of anti-trust investigation, it’s hard to qualify IBM as a helpless damsel in distress.

  • http://blog.actonline.org Morgan Reed

    Carlos,

    In my haste to focus on implicit and explicit, my comment on IRS adoption of pdf could be read to imply that market position is the ONLY metric a government should use.

    Clearly that’s not the case. Rather, the government agency should be looking to act as a customer, describing what are the attributes it needs in a product to fulfill a need.

    For pdf, it clearly needed a widely used, readily available format that preserved non-text attributes when displayed on screen or printed out. Had there been a compelling application in the marketplace that did the job better, or added a capability that would have made the docs more useful, then that might have tipped the decision to something else.

    But in IBM’s case the ONLY compelling part of their product is that it ‘works exactly like the Microsoft product’. So to _legislate_ the use of the product doesn’t fit into any standard market rationale.

    I certainly hope that IBM and Sun do more to create an application that does something better, or faster, or in some obvious way creates new value. If they do that, the format the application uses by default will be an afterthought to consumers, government or otherwise.

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Hi Morgan,

    I’m afraid I don’t know the details of the IRS-PDF decision, but I’m happy to accept your version of what happens. Of course, Adobe had a very different attitude when licensing the PDF specs than Microsoft ever had with their formats (until forced by the standarization PR war), which actually made their case to the IOS and government much stronger. Speaking of chicken and eggs!

    Also, although it is in Microsoft’s benefit to portrait this ‘war’ in terms of giant corporations battling each other (which also seems to fit your narrative that it is all about ‘the market’), there are other actors here with interest in having an open, high-quality standard. Your IRS-PDF example, therefore, is not as apt as HTML is: certainly there were commercial interests pushing ‘standard’ HTML to take away power from the IE-dominated world, but nobody would claim that there weren’t many other non-commercial interests that wanted that too. So this narrative of ‘IBM’ vs. ‘Microsoft’ just doesn’t work. ODF was *not* created by IBM (although yes, they participated in the process and still support it).

    Finally, you seem to be confusing ‘applications’ with ‘formats’. But part of the point of having an open format is that anybody can build *applications* and compete with features (“a better product”). This is what happened with HTML, and here we are looking at a happy competition in the browser market.

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Hi Morgan,

    I’m afraid I don’t know the details of the IRS-PDF decision, but I’m happy to accept your version of what happens. Of course, Adobe had a very different attitude when licensing the PDF specs than Microsoft ever had with their formats (until forced by the standarization PR war), which actually made their case to the IOS and government much stronger. Speaking of chicken and eggs!

    Also, although it is in Microsoft’s benefit to portrait this ‘war’ in terms of giant corporations battling each other (which also seems to fit your narrative that it is all about ‘the market’), there are other actors here with interest in having an open, high-quality standard. Your IRS-PDF example, therefore, is not as apt as HTML is: certainly there were commercial interests pushing ‘standard’ HTML to take away power from the IE-dominated world, but nobody would claim that there weren’t many other non-commercial interests that wanted that too. So this narrative of ‘IBM’ vs. ‘Microsoft’ just doesn’t work. ODF was *not* created by IBM (although yes, they participated in the process and still support it).

    Finally, you seem to be confusing ‘applications’ with ‘formats’. But part of the point of having an open format is that anybody can build *applications* and compete with features (“a better product”). This is what happened with HTML, and here we are looking at a happy competition in the browser market.

  • Snorre

    Morgan> “But in IBM’s case the ONLY compelling part of their product is that it ‘works exactly like the Microsoft product’.”

    Which is false. ODF—like HTML and PDF—work on open standards so that in the future, when today’s documents will be ancient and the applications forgotten, people can still access them. In order to do that with OOXML you need to pore through over 8000 pages of documentation, get your hands on word97, lotus 1-2-3 and so on to find out how they work and other fun stuff to get the implementation right.

    Finally, like Carlos said, you’re confusing applications and formats. Microsoft’s Office can open ODF documents. Right now you have to use a plugin (just like you’d have to use a plugin to get OOXML support), but if MS gets off its arse it can probably add in ODF support (and OOXML support) pretty fast. Apart from Office and Openoffice, there are lots of applications that support ODF:
    http://opendocumentfellowship.com/applications

    Where’s the list of applications that support OOXML? (Office-type applications, not writing the XML by hand and zipping it up … )

    (Yeah, there aren’t any users of OOXML. There are some people who use docx and such MS-XML, which is *almost* OOXML, but no actual OOXML users. So to use an editable open specification document with a few users, there’s not much choice except ODF. (There’s HTML, RTF and such, but they’re kind of not up to the task, or at least that seems the mood.) Of course the *optimal* solution would be not have to give a rat’s arse about government documents …)

  • http://fileformats.blogspot.com Gary McGath

    PDF is not an “open” standard in the sense of being non-proprietary or (until recently) approved by a standards body, but its specification has been public for a long time, ensuring that third parties can develop applications to read and write it (and they have). This is a very different situation from Microsoft’s non-XML formats.

  • Snorre

    Point. I just tend to use html, pdf and odf as examples now, since my government (the Norwegian) specified those three. (And then after a bit of bickering back and forth I think they might use word97 or some other version of word with good screen reader support. It might not be word97, but it was some old word format. Similar version for non-word office documents I guess.)

  • Snorre

    Morgan> “But in IBM’s case the ONLY compelling part of their product is that it ‘works exactly like the Microsoft product’.”

    Which is false. ODF—like HTML and PDF—work on open standards so that in the future, when today’s documents will be ancient and the applications forgotten, people can still access them. In order to do that with OOXML you need to pore through over 8000 pages of documentation, get your hands on word97, lotus 1-2-3 and so on to find out how they work and other fun stuff to get the implementation right.

    Finally, like Carlos said, you’re confusing applications and formats. Microsoft’s Office can open ODF documents. Right now you have to use a plugin (just like you’d have to use a plugin to get OOXML support), but if MS gets off its arse it can probably add in ODF support (and OOXML support) pretty fast. Apart from Office and Openoffice, there are lots of applications that support ODF:
    http://opendocumentfellowship.com/applications

    Where’s the list of applications that support OOXML? (Office-type applications, not writing the XML by hand and zipping it up … )

    (Yeah, there aren’t any users of OOXML. There are some people who use docx and such MS-XML, which is *almost* OOXML, but no actual OOXML users. So to use an editable open specification document with a few users, there’s not much choice except ODF. (There’s HTML, RTF and such, but they’re kind of not up to the task, or at least that seems the mood.) Of course the *optimal* solution would be not have to give a rat’s arse about government documents …)

  • http://fileformats.blogspot.com Gary McGath

    PDF is not an “open” standard in the sense of being non-proprietary or (until recently) approved by a standards body, but its specification has been public for a long time, ensuring that third parties can develop applications to read and write it (and they have). This is a very different situation from Microsoft’s non-XML formats.

  • Snorre

    Point. I just tend to use html, pdf and odf as examples now, since my government (the Norwegian) specified those three. (And then after a bit of bickering back and forth I think they might use word97 or some other version of word with good screen reader support. It might not be word97, but it was some old word format. Similar version for non-word office documents I guess.)

  • http://blog.actonline.org Morgan Reed

    Actually, I seem to be the only one here who does understand the difference between a format and an application. A format without an application to implement it is meaningless. Please see RFC 1149 for an example. I am pretty sure there has only been one test case implementation of this data packet standard (do the googling, please :)).

    And I have to take Snnore to task. You accuse me of confusing applications and formats, yet your opening remark gets them wrong! you say:

    ODF—like HTML and PDF—work on open standards so that in the future, when today’s documents will be ancient and the applications forgotten, people can still access them. [...]
    Finally, like Carlos said, you’re confusing applications and formats…

    ODF doesn’t work on an open standard, it IS an open standard! It doesn’t “work” on anything. In fact it isn’t an application at all. It can only be implemented, not shangied into producing “work”.

    Oh, and I love your HTML example – because HTML exists and is widely used (although essentially never in its “pure” form) WITHOUT any legislation mandating it’s use.

    Your desire to beat on OOXML as a standard seems to be getting in the way of the real debate, and that is: “Should governments legislate the use of a specific standard”.

    I say that governments should not legislate use of a specific standard. I don’t even think governments should mandate the use of “standards” because that definition is so murky at this point. Legislation is simply not the vehicle for making that type of decision.

    And the fact that you feel so engaged on this point suggests that the market spin by IBM has worked. They have essentially created a straw-man to try and sell a product. But rather than sell it on the merits – even the merit of “openness”, they have instead resorted to a political fix.

    Gary’s argument about pdf’s specification blends nicely with your point about OOXML not being implemented in its purest form even by Microsoft. In fact, pdf’s spec was available, but NEVER implemented fully by anyone but Adobe. Adobe used this in marketing materials to say that their products used more of the pdf features. Additionally, the pdf version that was sent to standards bodies always lagged the one being used by Adobe. As does HTML, and even ODF. Please note that OASIS is currently reviewing and updating the ODF standard to 1.2, and this version will be used by OO.o and probably all variants. So in fact, ODF implementation will actually be ahead of the ISO approved standard.

    Even though my personal interest in this issue is focused narrowly on the use of government mandate vs. defacto usage patterns, I get these sense that many here don’t actually have a good sense of how standards are actually used in the real world.

    For the most part, Standards represent a floor, not a ceiling. Implementers often tweak or improve ‘on top of’ the standard, but to be compliant the product will still correctly handle data in it’s lowest common denominator form.

    If any of you have a “powerboosted” Linksys wireless router, then you have a product that doesn’t just comply to the existing ISO 802.11 standard, but yet non-linksys devices know that they can still communicate, albeit slower than the “boosted” device.

    Here’s a link to all the implementations of OOXML . It’s a big list, and includes things like the iPhone. And guess what, I bet a high percentage of those don’t do the implementation exactly the same way; just as it is with HTML, and just as it is with pdf. And this is EXACTLY why I don’t want governments mandating a standard.

    Instead, find a solution that solves a problem – and governments as customers may want to ask for some way to be assured of long term access to data. Maybe it’s through a standard, maybe it’s through code escrow, maybe it’s through some other method that respects property.

    But not by getting some state legislature to pass a bill saying the state “shall only use ODF”.

  • Snorre

    Eh, I guess I meant it works / is used with open standards. Kanskje burde jeg bare holde meg til norsk siden jeg bommer på ordlyden på engelsk. Er det greit for deg?

    As for legislation, I don’t know what’s proposed or the deal in your part of the world, but here it’s only open standards that are mandated—when the government is putting something out in the public. They can use ms-office internally as much as they like, and nobody else has to use the same format as them, it’s just that when they’re going to make something available, they want to make it available to everybody. AFAIK it doesn’t ban the usage of closed standords either, so they can publish in klingon-doc for all they care, as long as they also publish in bokmål/nynorsk and one of the open standards they’ve said they’re going to use.

    “And guess what, I bet a high percentage of those don’t do the implementation exactly the same way; just as it is with HTML, and just as it is with pdf. And this is EXACTLY why I don’t want governments mandating a standard.”

    Though most people are trying to do things right and be compliant[1]. The major exception to compliance and general tendency to invent stuff as they go along comes from MSIE, which is why people[2] are wary of *them*, not standards.

    Finally, laws can be changed. Why you’re getting so worked up about which formats the government will be using for some period of time apart from calling the decision a “law” in stead of “policy” or “decision those eggheads down in IT made” or “decision the bosses up on top made”.

    If the goverment started making decisions about what sort of formats everybody else has to use, then I’d be creeped out.

    [1] At least in the browser area, I have no idea what’s going on in PDF land.
    [2] Ok, nerds.

  • http://blog.actonline.org Morgan Reed

    Actually, I seem to be the only one here who does understand the difference between a format and an application. A format without an application to implement it is meaningless. Please see RFC 1149 for an example. I am pretty sure there has only been one test case implementation of this data packet standard (do the googling, please :)).

    And I have to take Snnore to task. You accuse me of confusing applications and formats, yet your opening remark gets them wrong! you say:

    ODF—like HTML and PDF—work on open standards so that in the future, when today’s documents will be ancient and the applications forgotten, people can still access them. [...]
    Finally, like Carlos said, you’re confusing applications and formats…

    ODF doesn’t work on an open standard, it IS an open standard! It doesn’t “work” on anything. In fact it isn’t an application at all. It can only be implemented, not shangied into producing “work”.

    Oh, and I love your HTML example – because HTML exists and is widely used (although essentially never in its “pure” form) WITHOUT any legislation mandating it’s use.

    Your desire to beat on OOXML as a standard seems to be getting in the way of the real debate, and that is: “Should governments legislate the use of a specific standard”.

    I say that governments should not legislate use of a specific standard. I don’t even think governments should mandate the use of “standards” because that definition is so murky at this point. Legislation is simply not the vehicle for making that type of decision.

    And the fact that you feel so engaged on this point suggests that the market spin by IBM has worked. They have essentially created a straw-man to try and sell a product. But rather than sell it on the merits – even the merit of “openness”, they have instead resorted to a political fix.

    Gary’s argument about pdf’s specification blends nicely with your point about OOXML not being implemented in its purest form even by Microsoft. In fact, pdf’s spec was available, but NEVER implemented fully by anyone but Adobe. Adobe used this in marketing materials to say that their products used more of the pdf features. Additionally, the pdf version that was sent to standards bodies always lagged the one being used by Adobe. As does HTML, and even ODF. Please note that OASIS is currently reviewing and updating the ODF standard to 1.2, and this version will be used by OO.o and probably all variants. So in fact, ODF implementation will actually be ahead of the ISO approved standard.

    Even though my personal interest in this issue is focused narrowly on the use of government mandate vs. defacto usage patterns, I get these sense that many here don’t actually have a good sense of how standards are actually used in the real world.

    For the most part, Standards represent a floor, not a ceiling. Implementers often tweak or improve ‘on top of’ the standard, but to be compliant the product will still correctly handle data in it’s lowest common denominator form.

    If any of you have a “powerboosted” Linksys wireless router, then you have a product that doesn’t just comply to the existing ISO 802.11 standard, but yet non-linksys devices know that they can still communicate, albeit slower than the “boosted” device.

    Here’s a link to all the implementations of OOXML . It’s a big list, and includes things like the iPhone. And guess what, I bet a high percentage of those don’t do the implementation exactly the same way; just as it is with HTML, and just as it is with pdf. And this is EXACTLY why I don’t want governments mandating a standard.

    Instead, find a solution that solves a problem – and governments as customers may want to ask for some way to be assured of long term access to data. Maybe it’s through a standard, maybe it’s through code escrow, maybe it’s through some other method that respects property.

    But not by getting some state legislature to pass a bill saying the state “shall only use ODF”.

  • Snorre

    Eh, I guess I meant it works / is used with open standards. Kanskje burde jeg bare holde meg til norsk siden jeg bommer på ordlyden på engelsk. Er det greit for deg?

    As for legislation, I don’t know what’s proposed or the deal in your part of the world, but here it’s only open standards that are mandated—when the government is putting something out in the public. They can use ms-office internally as much as they like, and nobody else has to use the same format as them, it’s just that when they’re going to make something available, they want to make it available to everybody. AFAIK it doesn’t ban the usage of closed standords either, so they can publish in klingon-doc for all they care, as long as they also publish in bokmål/nynorsk and one of the open standards they’ve said they’re going to use.

    “And guess what, I bet a high percentage of those don’t do the implementation exactly the same way; just as it is with HTML, and just as it is with pdf. And this is EXACTLY why I don’t want governments mandating a standard.”

    Though most people are trying to do things right and be compliant[1]. The major exception to compliance and general tendency to invent stuff as they go along comes from MSIE, which is why people[2] are wary of *them*, not standards.

    Finally, laws can be changed. Why you’re getting so worked up about which formats the government will be using for some period of time apart from calling the decision a “law” in stead of “policy” or “decision those eggheads down in IT made” or “decision the bosses up on top made”.

    If the goverment started making decisions about what sort of formats everybody else has to use, then I’d be creeped out.

    [1] At least in the browser area, I have no idea what’s going on in PDF land.
    [2] Ok, nerds.

  • http://www.voicesforinnovation.org Matthew Zablud

    I work on the Voices for Innovation program (a Microsoft supported community) and I thought you may be interested to read this post: http://janvandenbeld.blogspot.com/2008/04/hypocrisy.html by Jan van den Beld, Fmr. Secretary General of Ecma International in Geneva.

    He notes that even though the standards community overwhelmingly approved Open XML, it seems some players just are not willing to accept their decision. Needless to say, he thinks this is a big insult to the integrity of the thousands of people who worked on this Open XML process.

  • http://www.voicesforinnovation.org Matthew Zablud

    I work on the Voices for Innovation program (a Microsoft supported community) and I thought you may be interested to read this post: http://janvandenbeld.blogspot.com/2008/04/hypoc… by Jan van den Beld, Fmr. Secretary General of Ecma International in Geneva.

    He notes that even though the standards community overwhelmingly approved Open XML, it seems some players just are not willing to accept their decision. Needless to say, he thinks this is a big insult to the integrity of the thousands of people who worked on this Open XML process.

  • http://www.noooxml.org/ e_f

    He notes that even though the standards community overwhelmingly approved Open XML, it seems some players just are not willing to accept their decision.

    This is a factually incorrect statement. The OOXML was very narrowly approved, and in many countries their have been documented irregularities surrounding the voting process. I could repost the entire list, but you can just head on over to Groklaw, they have many of the facts posted there.

    So, those who don’t like the sloppiness of the OOXML standard or are unhappy with the underhanded way that Microsoft engineered the approval of OOXML are being very unfairly branded as ‘sore-losers’

    The real sore losers are MS, who are upset that many see through their transparent efforts to create a fake ‘open’ standard.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    He notes that even though the standards community overwhelmingly approved Open XML, it seems some players just are not willing to accept their decision.

    This is a factually incorrect statement. The OOXML was very narrowly approved, and in many countries their have been documented irregularities surrounding the voting process. I could repost the entire list, but you can just head on over to Groklaw, they have many of the facts posted there.

    So, those who don’t like the sloppiness of the OOXML standard or are unhappy with the underhanded way that Microsoft engineered the approval of OOXML are being very unfairly branded as ‘sore-losers’

    The real sore losers are MS, who are upset that many see through their transparent efforts to create a fake ‘open’ standard.

Previous post:

Next post: