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Microsoft Submits its Office Open XML Format to Ecma: The Q&A

Since it’s apparently all anyone wants to ask me about today, I suppose I should comment on yesterday’s Microsoft Office Open XML news. For those of you that missed it, the folks from Redmond announced their intention to submit the XML format that will be the default in its forthcoming Office 12 suite to the Ecma standards organization, and from thence to the all important – for governments anyhow – ISO organization. Here’s the Microsoft press release, and then a couple of press stories I’ve been quoted in (here and here), or one that my esteemed colleague commented in here.

Before I continue, I suggest beginning with some previous entries on the subject. From the Microsoft side, Scoble interviews Jean Paoli – senior director of XML architecture at Microsoft and a co-creator of the XML 1.0 standard – here, Shared Source head honcho Jason Matusow weighs in with his take here, and Brian Jones – Office program manager – gives his take here. From the ODF perspective, I’d start with either Andy Updegrove here or Stephe Walli here, and also give Groklaw’s analysis a look.

What do I think? I think it’s time for a Q&A:

Q: To begin, what’s your background here? Have you spoken to Paoli about the move? Consulted on it?
A: I’ve disclosed my background with respect to the ODF before here. With respect to Microsoft and this announcement, I have neither been personally briefed nor consulted on the move, though I was made aware of it ahead of time. My colleague, however, had the opportunity to speak to Paoli last Friday and we have discussed in moderate detail this announcement.

Q: Any biases to disclose?
A: I have no bias towards a particular product or implementation, or format for that matter. I am, however, biased in favor of open standards, as I believe that the competition they enable encourages innovation and generally speaking is extremely beneficial to end users and customers. For the record, here’s how I define the term ‘open standard.’

Q: Ok, with that out of the way – what’s your take on the announcement? Is this a significant move?
A: Significant? Undoubtedly. But just how significant is highly dependent on a determination I’m unable to make at the current time: i.e., will this be an open standard, or an open format? Put differently – will the format be vendor neutral, giving no preference towards Microsoft, or will it reduce other would-be participants to second-class citizens. Will we see Microsoft relinquish control to the format’s Technical Committee? Will the format discriminate against open source platforms? These are the questions, in my mind, that need to be answered.

Q: What do you think compelled this move? Was it Massachusetts and the growing support for the Open Document Format (ODF) worldwide?
A: With all due respect to Matusow, who contends that Massachusetts was not “the direct catalyst of this action on our part,” I personally don’t believe that any more than I believed that the support for PDF was unrelated to the ODF (I told you we disagreed frequently ;). I’m expected to believe that after decades of maintaining the proprietary formats as a control point, the truly momentous decision to submit the format to a standards body is not directly related to the current MA debate around ODF – it’s just coincidence? Sorry; I may not be the sharpest tack in the box, but even I’m not buying that one.

When I made this same argument around the PDF decision, I was told that it couldn’t be related because the technical and legal work that went into such decisions took months or even years and therefore could not have been delivered as a response – the turnaround time was simply insufficient. To which I reply: nonsense. When I was in college, a friend of mine taking an economics class related an anecdote that described how one of the major pizza delivery companies had a huge store of gimmicky ideas like stuffed crust pizzas queued up, to be doled out as market conditions warranted. Or, if you prefer an example that’s remotely related to technology, take the Apple/x86 situation. From what I understand having spoken to people working there, Apple’s had OS X running on x86 for a looooong time; it was merely waiting for it to become necessary.

So from where I sit, I’d be surprised if Microsoft had not long considered the possibility that PDF support and submitting the format to a standards body might not someday become necessary, with the feature not to be released until that day. With everything that’s happened lately, IMO, yesterday became that day. It’s not that I blame them for the hesitation – believing as I do that openness is very much a function of incentive – but I do think that for Microsoft to argue otherwise is both misleading and counterproductive.

Q: In the cited press articles, you seem to be very skeptical of the move and its motives – can you explain why?
A: Certainly, there are three primary reasons.

  1. It Reinvents the Wheel:
    I’m fully in agreement with Paoli when he says (in the press release) that an open standard office productivity format is hugely important because it offers “customers unlimited and perpetual access to their data without being tied to a single solution.” The only difficulty I have is that we already had that in the ODF, as I covered here. The probable Microsoft response to this – that the ODF was based on the OO.o formats which enjoy far less marketshare – is, while true, besides the point. Microsoft had the opportunity (and still does) to participate in the ODF and chose not to. I don’t know if it was a case of Not Invented Here or not, but it certainly looks that way to external observers.

  2. Past History:
    One of the points I brought up in the case was the issue of a few of Microsoft’s previous submissions to Ecma – the C# language and the CLR runtime. Those two assets were submitted to the standards body just as the Office XML formats will be, in theory to encourage adoption. So far, so good. The problem is that when one open source project did just that, in Novell’s Mono (Creative Commons licensed report on Mono here), Microsoft appeared – and still does – less than enthusiastic about the development. The reception I’ve gotten to my suggestion that Microsoft grant the Mono project a general legal amnesty, so that Novell can push Mono more actively than it can today, has been met with a generally frosty reception regardless of which of the Microsoft folks I’ve raised the issue with. Indeed, Microsoft went so far as to deny the Mono developers the opportunity to even host a BOF at their PDC. In Microsoft’s defense, the issue probably isn’t as much the Ecma portions of the Mono stack, but some of the .NET functionality that Mono replicates, but it’s clear that the submission of C# and the CLR to Ecma were less than successful as “standards.”

  3. What’s the Incentive?:
    As mentioned above, I’m a big believer that commercial organizations act when they’re incented to do so economically, not – with very rare exceptions – when it’s right for their customers to do so. In the case of Microsoft Office, the standardization of the formats would have been in their customers best interests years ago. But the difficulty is that, from a Microsoft perspective, Office is a lucrative franchise that had to be protected along with Windows at pretty much any cost. In other words, there was no business incentive for Microsoft to allow competitors to compete on equal footing. Why compete on implementation (though they’d be successful doing so) when you can compete on formats? Again, that’s business, and it’s Microsoft’s right to do so (in theory).

    Fast forward to today: if we take Microsoft at its word, it’s levelling the playing field for its competitors. I personally will need more convincing, because it’s difficult for me to believe that Microsoft would see enough incentive to truly open the doors to equal competition. As discussed above, I believe that undoubtedly the decision to submit to the standards body is connected with recent events in Massachusetts and elsewhere – but to voluntarily cede control over a format that they’ve fiercely protected for years? You’ll have to pardon me, but I have a tough time with that. Not because I believe that they’re evil (I promise Matt), but because as much as I believe that open source office productivity suites are a threat to one of Microsoft’s core franchises, Microsoft’s given me little inclination that they perceive the same threat. In the commentary around ODF, all I’ve heard and seen from Microsoft is, “there’s no demand.” In his interview with Paoli linked to above, Scoble makes the following comment: “Have you missed how much market share Office has around the world?” So if it’s not that they’re facing a threat, and one discounts the possibility as I do that they are doing this out of the goodness of their heart for customers, it’s tough to figure how the move makes sense. Hence, my skepticism.

Q: Let’s say for the sake of argument – skeptical though you might be – that Microsoft really is committed to a level playing field, equal opportunities for competitors, and will cede control over the format’s direction. What does this mean?
A: Great question, and the short answer is that I don’t know. We’d have two competing open standards, both with little to no marketshare relative to the older binary formats, with Microsoft having the incumbent’s advantage in that they’d benefit simply by maintaining the status quo. The Open Document Format, for its part, would seem to have a slight headstart in that there are shipping products right now, and more importantly those products are relatively platform independent (given that there are currently implementations of ODF supporting products for Linux, Mac and Windows – along with Software-as-a-Service offerings like Writely).

What would happen? It’s unclear to me. I would have to know a.) just how open the Office Open XML standard is, and b.) how developers and ISVs alike react to the news. I’ll be able to better answer that a couple of weeks from now than I can at the moment.

Q: Is this news good or bad for customers?
A: Well, more open generally means customers win. And if Microsoft has truly opened the format, and is able to attract credible alternative ISVs to the platform, it will certainly be a boon from a customer perspective because they’ll have choices where once they were limited.

The difficulty is that we could see the proliferation of two overlapping and incompatible office productivity formats that could introduce tremendous confusion into the marketplace. While the de facto standard that the Office binary formats represent has not been kind to enterprises economically, it’s been a boon to users because they’re all on the same page – a Word doc was a Word doc. With two competing standards, there’s the possibility that that kind of end user simplicity could be fractured. Competition is almost always a good thing; one of the exceptions, however, is standards. As an aside, it will be interesting to consider as Andy does whether or not ISO will be willing to house two directly competing standards.

Q: Any other thoughts?
A: Just that I encourage anyone reading this to write in – preferably here on the blog, or on email or IM – to let me know what you think about the Microsoft format, its licensing, and whether or not you believe it’s something that you can and should work with. I’m very interested to see what the wider reaction to the announcement is.

Categories: In the Headlines.

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6 Responses

  1. For what it is worth here’s my take: Microsoft has a lot of pressure to support an Open Standard from their customers like Massachusetts, so they have to do something.

    By going with their own standard, they are able to compete for those contracts, but they ensure that it will take a seriously long time for anybody competitors to implement their standard. It could be years. Plus if their standard maps to internal structures of MS Office more readily than ODF, then they could get an implementation out the door much faster.

    Microsoft wants to claim to be playing nice with Open Standards as long as they control the standard.

  2. The only part of this that I’m competent to talk about and with which I disagree is the bit about reinventing the wheel. “Microsoft had the opportunity (and still does) to participate in the ODF and chose not to. I don’t know if it was a case of Not Invented Here or not, but it certainly looks that way to external observers.” As someone who was an external observer until a year ago, standardization works when leading competitors with a real need to interoperate come together in a neutral place to smooth out the insignificant differences. Standardization does not work when peripheral players get together to define The Real Standard that the industry had better support. The exceptions are things like HTML and RSS that had immense mindshare / marketshare before anyone worried much about whether they were “standards” or not, and the bigger fish found it expedient to just join the parade.

    I’ll guess (not having been at Microsoft at the time) that when the ODF activity started up, the MS Office people thought something like “yet another attempt to impose a standard from the outside rather than evolve interoperability from the inside … bozo_bit = TRUE.” I personally think that was shortsighted (in hindsight of course), but in my day job I have to worry about this kind of thing and it’s hard to do. There are way too many purported standards out there for even a big company that wanted to Do The Right Thing to take seriously. After all, the whole point of standardization is lost if there are so many “standards” that they don’t offer real stability and interoperability.

    Another consideration is that one size simply does not fit all. Standardizing common denominator generic office app formats is fine and arguably hits an 80/20 point, but a major design consideration for Office 2003 is to support custom schemas / stylesheets tailored to the needs of individual customers. Until the whole issue became politicized, I suspect that the need for an official standard that covered the 80% case just wasn’t obvious to people paying more attention to the “interesting” 20%

    Finally, many disagree, but there was a very strong sense when Office 2003 was announced and beta’d 3 years ago that the appropriate standards were XML, XML Schema, and XSLT. Office 2003 supported *those* standards, so it wasn’t obvious that more narrow application standards were needed. Of course that is XML geek-think … but Jean Paoli was an SGML/XML geek long before most of us had heard of it.

  3. Mike, I was kind of amazed with your sentence “yet another attempt to impose a standard from the outside rather than evolve interoperability from the inside”.
    Rather than evolve? I mean, when did Microsoft EVER did anything to promote interoperability? While MS office format was a Microsoft exclusive, that would be a problem to several people because they would be forced to choose between Windows and Office or see their hability of interchanging documents with the rest of the World hurt.
    “so it wasn’t obvious that more narrow application standards were needed”: Those “narrow application Standards weren’t needed *BY* Microsoft, that’s true. MS was clearly using the proprietary formats to lock in customers, not only to Office but to Windows (it looks like an Win-Win) but, for people outside MS, saying that “narrow application support wasn’t needed is like saying that Linux on the desktop doesn’t exist.
    Anyway, I think we all remember Microsoft saying that Migrating to ODF would be impossible because the format didn’t allow for some required legacy features. I think we all also remember the MA conference when someone from MS said it would be too simple to convert an MS document to ODF. Now, I’ll just seat back and wait to see if something cames out from this or was I just lied again.

  4. I heard Brian Jones discuss this the other day at XML 2005: There is a *lossy* conversion possible from MS Office format to ODF. ODF can’t represent everything in the MS Office formats. Word may not be able to represent some things in ODF, I’m not sure if I heard him correctly. Any future MS Office “Save As ODF” feature would presumably have a dialog saying that some information would be lost, much as it does with standard HTML today.

    I’m not competent to discuss the technical mapping or the licensing issues. All I’m taking issue with is the “reinvent the wheel” bit. My position is that there isn’t a REAL standard document format to reinvent; OASIS calling it a “standard” plants a flag in the sand but that’s all. There are so many purported standards on the Web that one needs real industry credibility and an organization’s imprimatur to make it so. ODF may well get that credibility before long when multiple real shipping products are interoperating smoothly with diverse real user data, but that hasn’t happened yet AFAIK.

    I was as skeptical as you are about MS’s commitment to interoperability a few years ago. I remember having a nice rant along the lines of your comment at my then-boss in about 1997 when MS jumped on the XML bandwagon. His response was something like “Microsoft has all the same interoperability problems across platforms and applications and versions within its ecosystem as the rest of us do between their ecosystem and the rest of the world.” Everything I’ve seen since then has confirmed his analysis. Office 2003 was one of the things that finally changed that perception for me. Whatever the motivation, and whatever nits wants to pick with the format and licensing, Office 2003’s XML format is used by lots of customers to build real interoperability with other systems and applications.

  5. Have you ever seen anyone’s email client having problems accessing anyone’s email server (until you throuw outlook and Exchange into the mix)?
    Have you ever seen an LDAP query fail because the LDAP server wasn’t supported? I’m sorry but, “Microsoft has the same problems of interoperability than anyone else” is simply wrong.
    Also, because I’ve seen a million times from Microsoft the standard can’t be used because it doesn’t do some stuff, I never saw them being specific and History proved that a lie (We need MAPI , IMAP isn’t good enough, we need AD, LDAP isn’t good enough, we need SMB, NFS isn’t good enough) since never the MS protocol actually brought anything new, I simply ask Microsoft to be specific and give us one (1) example of a missing functionality in ODF.
    Of course no Organization ever supported interoperability until the first time it did, this may be MS’s time and, of course that MS is free to choose any format it likes but, if they decide the need to explain their choices, they entitle me to question the arguments.
    This weblog is in the A-list for crying out loud. Does that mean that from the thousands of people reading this NO ONE can provide 1 example of missing functionality of ODF required by MS?

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Continuing the Discussion

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