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Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington

OOXML stalls at ISO

2,200 years ago the armies of Rome and Carthage squared off on a battlefield at Cannae. 90,000 Romans faced 50,000 Carthaginians and were slaughtered (to the tune of about 70,000 dead Romans) thanks to a certain elephant-commanding general by the name of Hannibal. The Romans so admired Hannibal, recognizing in him their own fierce bloodthirsty lust for domination, that statues of Hannibal could still be found in Rome centuries later.

I doubt Redmond will be commissioning statues of any of the anti-OOXML/pro-open-format campaigners. OOXML (the confusingly named Office Open XML) is Microsoft's XML format for documents, not to be confused (despite the name) with Sun's OpenOffice file format ODF (Open Document Format). Microsoft had submitted the OOXML spec to ISO for ratification as a standard, but has been rebuffed after failing to get sufficient "yes" votes.

This is a great victory for advocates of openness, whose practical arguments against OOXML came down to:

  1. The standard doesn't adequately specify all the things you need to implement it (e.g., one of the flags is "autoSpaceLikeWord95" which is difficult to implement without reimplementing unspecified bugs from Word95).
  2. The "we promise we won't sue over patents" language from Microsoft doesn't amount to a blanket royalty-free patent license.
  3. Why do we need another ISO document format given that ODF was blessed in May, 2006?

The analogy with the battle of Cannae isn't a deep one—Microsoft had more tricks up their sleeve than Rome, which went down quickly after a clever encircling move from Hannibal. For example, a surprising number of small countries upgraded themselves from observer to voting status within the last few weeks: Côte-d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Jamaica, Lebanon, Malta, Pakistan, Turkey, Uruguay, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, and Ecuador. All but the last two voted "yes". Naturally, the suspicion is ballot-stuffing, fuelled by the Swedish bribery scandal. I'm gratified New Zealand's standards body voted "no with comments" in a scandal-free process.

Why does anyone care? Open file formats let anyone produce and consume files. Proprietary formats mean files die with the apps that created them, whereas open formats give longevity to data. Developers need open file formats to be able to compete on an equal footing (competing against the owner of a format you're both using is like doing the 100m dash against someone with a bag of caltrops). This is an issue for open and closed source developers alike. As Andrew Savikas said here earlier, Microsoft deliberately makes choices in their "standards" that sacrifice general flexibility for Office-specific implementation details. Of course, this isn't why Microsoft cares—they're pursuing ISO standardization to get government purchase orders because governments value open formats for the reasons I just gave. And that's why Sun and IBM are fighting it—ODF's standardization is a competitive edge for them that they're loath to lose.

How do the two formats stack up for developers? OOXML is already sufficiently open and well-specified that developers can write OOXML files for Microsoft Office to consume. It's not the case that developers can read and write arbitrarily-complex OOXML files (not even Microsoft's), although it seems that 80% of the OOXML you'll ever need to produce is specified well enough for you to do so. Developers are already reading and writing arbitrarily-complex ODF files. The only remaining problems for developers are the unclear parts of the OOXML specification, the inadequate OOXML patent language, and the lingering issue of duplication of effort supporting ODF and OOXML.

We see the OOXML drama in light of two trends. First, it's open beyond source. The world is realizing that open formats, open protocols, open standards are as important as open source. With that comes the question of what makes an acceptable software standard, for example the IETF requires two independent compatible complete implementations prior to acceptance as a standard. The second trend we see playing out in OOXML is adoption: open source office suites provide a data format that's standardised and open, and that's been enough for governments to choose the open source suite (and its bugs) over the Microsoft Office suite (and its bugs).

Victorious anti-OOXML campaigners would do well to think twice about crowing over Microsoft's PR spin on the vote. The next step for OOXML is an ISO "ballot resolution meeting" in February where voting countries are able to change their ballot if they deemed their comments to have been addressed. Rome's greatest days came after Cannae—after losing 70k in the bloodiest day of battle ever, Rome went away to lick its wounds, raised another army, did battle again, and kicked Hannibal and Carthage's asses. The Roman republic continued for another 250 years and the empire 400 years after that, during which time they ruled from Scotland to Persia and enjoyed wealth, culture, and freedom the likes of which wouldn't be seen for a thousand years. Carthage ... well, today it's only just being resettled as a suburb of Tunis. One victory does not a lasting civilization build.

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Comments: 9

David Megginson   [09.05.07 05:42 AM]

That's not a happy analogy. Hannibal won some initial battles brilliantly, but he was entirely unable to exploit them or take Rome -- the Romans rallied, adjusted their tactics, drove his forces out of Italy, chased them back to Carthage, took over Carthage's empire, and left Carthage itself a smoldering, defenseless, dependent rump state.

David Megginson   [09.05.07 05:47 AM]

Yeah ... disregard that last comment. I somehow missed your last paragraph in my first read-through.

More seriously, I wonder how much this all matters. With the computing world moving off the desktop and onto the web, isn't the OOXML vs ODF thing fighting the battles of the last two decades instead of this one?

Aaron Fischer   [09.05.07 06:34 AM]

OOXML vs ODF is a rather pointless argument for consumers wanting an open format, to abate data lock in. In the SAS world how do you move your data? and in what format?

gnat   [09.05.07 02:12 PM]

Aaron: false opposition. I could turn it around and say "what use an open SAS format/protocol if all my government's memos and briefing papers are locked up?" We need both--more open format work, not less.

Matthew Cruickshank   [09.05.07 02:58 PM]

re: David Megginson, "More seriously, I wonder how much this all matters. With the computing world moving off the desktop and onto the web, isn't the OOXML vs ODF thing fighting the battles of the last two decades instead of this one?"

While there are some SaaS office suites online, all of them offer download in one format or another, and people still want to be able to serialize and backup their data.

Also desktop office suites are still, what, like 95% of all office suites? Microsoft earn 3.8 billion every quarter from Office -- desktop office suites are very popular. This is an important fight.

For governments the open format thing is very important too -- eg, putting up ".doc" files for citizens is a problem because when it's the only option it means that people need to go buy a particular company's product. Instead, they need to move to open standards which is what this OOXML thing is all about.

To quote Bill Gates "Established companies have an interest in excluding future competitors" and a future ODF standard that's cohesive and cheap to implement because it builds upon existing standards is a threat. It lowers the barriers to entry.

As for SAS -- yes, it would seem that having the ability to move data around would be a good idea. If there are compatible subsets of data, then Open Standards would be a good way of achieving that.

Re: gnat, Yeah, I agree.

Sachin   [09.06.07 04:21 PM]

Its worth mentioning that a week back Indian Supreme court rejected Microsoft's OOXML format.

I personally have used the Java APIs provided by for a project.... its was heavily bug ridden but can get the job done.

Aaron   [09.06.07 08:07 PM]

Gnat, my SAS comment was in response to David. I was trying to imply that this fight for open standards is relevant no matter where the software sits desktop or web. In 200 years can you still access the data that is the problem.

David   [09.08.07 07:47 AM]

I agree with Aaron and Matthew that open formats are important. The problem with both ODF and OOXML is that they're horribly mangled (OOXML much more so) to support the quirks and legacy junk specific to 1980s and 1990s desktop office software suites. Imagine if HTML had tried to support all of WordPerfect's quirks in 1990!

I also agree there's value in creating something like ODF or OOXML, if only to make it easier to extract legacy data in the future, but I think that the attention they're getting is out of proportion to their importance -- they're really more a matter of cleaning up and refactoring old stuff than looking to the future.

pat   [10.04.07 12:34 PM]

I do not see so badly the standard either that they want to implant with because he is so bad? , he is that I do not understand much of this but people speak very badly of which Microsoft tries.I have entered and it has seemed to me well…


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