An Open Letter to Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Corel and others on Lodging Old File Formats with ISO

by Rick Jelliffe

This is an open letter to all companies who achieved market success in the 1980s and 1990s with PC-based applications.

The recent controversy over ODF and Office Open XML at ISO shows both that there is substantial interest in document formats, and that there is also substantial commercial rivalry. I do not believe I am on my own in thinking that the writing is on the wall: the days of private proprietary formats, especially binary formats, are numbered and perhaps have already expired.

There are of course many millions of documents archived in these older formats, and it will be a major challenge for archivists to figure out workable and cost-effective strategies for maintaining or grandfathering these documents into newer formats, especially more-or-less lossy standard formats.

Corporations who were market leaders in the 1980s and 1990s for PC applications have a responsibility to make sure that documentation on their old formats are not lost. Especially for document formats before 1990, the benefits of the format as some kind of IP-embodying revenue generator will have lapsed now in 2008. However the responsibility for archiving remains.

So I call on companies in this situation, in particular Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, Corel, Computer Associates, Fujitsu, Philips, as well as the current owners of past names such as Wang, and so on, to submit your legacy binary format documentation for documents (particularly home and office documents) and media, to ISO/IEC JTC1 for acceptance as Technical Specifications.* Handing over the documentation to ISO care can shift the responsibility for archiving and making available old documentation from individual companies, provide good public relations, and allow old projects to be tidied up and closed.

The recent controversy over Office Open XML and ODF has occurred in part because both were submitted to become International Standards, which is appropriate for living formats. However, there is still a substantial public interest that would be served by existing documentation of legacy formats being submitted as Technical Specifications or Technical Reports, which, as classes of documents that are less than a standard, will be less controversial but still useful for putting this valuable information onto the public arena. As publicly available specifications, ISO/IEC would make the material available free on their website: free access is a very important outcome.

For nations where the 17 year patent time applies, there seems little reason why formats from 1990 and before could not be quickly submitted and dealt with in this way. However, given the enormous benefits that openness brings in increasing the size of the pie, I suggest that even recent formats, for example formats before 2001, should also be submitted to ISO as Technical Specifications in this way with some appropriate RAND-z IP covenant or license.

Examples of these formats that spring to mind include:

  • All Microsoft Office binary and text and media formats, including RTF and Visio

  • All IBM/Lotus binary and text and media formats, including Visicalc

  • All Corel formats, including WordPerfect

Furthermore, I call on archiving and regulatory bodies to investigate encouraging and supporting this kind of activity. As well as office document formats, there are substantial legacy collections of financial and engineering documents which would also benefit from the same treatment. It should go without saying, but the Macintosh, Amiga, OS/2, and applications on the many different versions of UNIX may also have hosted popular applications whose documentation may be in danger of being lost unless it is lodged with a suitable formal international technical library, such as ISO/IEC.

The ISO/IEC Technical Specification is a good, low-fuss medium for making sure that older formats do not disappear, and without requiring costly rewrites or changes.

*Contact your local national standards body for advise on this, or your local SC34 committee member. Do not get too caught up in whether the document is a Technical Report or Technical Specification.


2008-03-17 02:42:21
Good post Jeff
2008-03-17 11:36:34
Good advice, if OOXML can be fast-tracked ( being so poor engineered, bad reviewed and nastly edited ) i believe that *any* format could achieve ISO status.

It is just a matter to have enough influence at NBs ( but don't worry, you have Jamaica, Malta, Cyprus and Côte-d'Ivoire to come to your help ).


Rick Jelliffe
2008-03-18 16:24:29
carlos: Note that ODF and OOXML were fast-tracked to become International Standards (with an IS number). The call I am making is for old dead formats to be registered, documented, archived and made public as Technical Specifications (which have a TS number) or perhaps Technical Reports (which would have a TR number) or perhaps even ISO Publicly Available Specifications (which IIRC have a PAS number). Different animals.

The thing that is common to all of them is that they are too important to let slip through the cracks. The thing that is dissimilar is that living formats needs maintenance (correction and evolution and harmonization), and the IS process is designed for that.

Rob Brown
2008-03-18 20:41:20
Hi Rick,

I'm the poster of the "slur" in your last article, "The anti-OOXML mob need to lift their game". I wonder if I might be allowed to respond? If not, I don't mind if you just delete this comment.

I'm not at all ignorant or intolerant of the middle ground in this debate. I have never criticised you, or Jesper Lund Stocholm, or even people such as Brian Jones and Andy Updegrove who have biases but are at least open about them. But that's not relevant to what I was commenting on.

The person I was criticising had previously posted a series of moderate and sensible articles, and I thought they had added value to the discussion even though they got progressively more aggressive. Then he posted the article I mentioned, which was (as I saw it), a mess.

He crudely mangled a joke to make a point, and then aimed that "point" at a vague and mis-identified target. Then he wandered off into a bit of an illogical, self-contradictory rant, continued in his next posting.

It was not his opinion that riled me, but his trajectory from rational to extreme, and the conflict of interest that I perceived.

The last paragraph in my comment is not something I'm proud of, I would have been a lot less strident if I had taken ten deep breaths like my mother always told me to. However, I am still still very bemused about his motivation in writing what he has, given his position.

Rick Jelliffe
2008-03-20 02:56:14
Rob: I admire you for saying that.

However, Patrick has done one of the most in-depth reviews of OOXML of perhaps anyone else on the planet: certainly equal to anyone else. And he has done it from the POV of someone who does not love MS or has no financial connection, and not as a spoiler or anti-MS stooge. As the editor of ODF, he is surely more than aware of ODF strengths and weaknesses and capabilities, and ODF is a project is obviously passionately committed to.

I think one difference between Patrick and others is that, as I understand his view (and I am not speaking for him here, just articulating my observations) he sees ODF's role as a neutral interchange format. This neutrality necessarily marginalizes considerations of ODF being developed either to disrupt or enhance the MS market dominance: ODF can only succeed by being good not by PR cunning. This is very different from the rabid anti-OOXMLers who want to portray ODF as some kind of magic fairy dust whose intent is to destroy the four-paned beast. From the POV that the success of ODF revolves around its internal quality and its neutrality, I don't see why his train of thought is at all hard to follow: in particular Genie's and peasants that

As the OpenDocument editor, I think OpenDocument benefits from having a publicly debated format that MS Office software uses. I would prefer that it be OpenDocument but recognize that in an non-clone culture that opinions differ.

The (immoderates on the) anti-OOXML side have so effectively poisoned the atmosphere by now, that any idea that Microsoft will be given a fair hearing in any ODF forum is ludicrous. The only forum now for harmonization and convergence is with DIS 29500 mark II as a standard, and with people like Patrick Durusau, who are genuinely committed to the process and the scrupulous neutrality of ODF as an interchange format, working from the ODF side to ensure that ODF reaches its potential. This potential is better served by having a standard for OOXML, with MS at that table participating in efforts to harmonize with ODF.

But why allow your buttons to be pushed? Do you think that your (over-)reaction was not anticipated and instigated? When the blog mentions a conference in "Seattle", of course you are meant to think "Seattle...aha..Redmond...aha...secret deals" otherwise why was Seattle mentioned? The most interesting thing about that conference was that it was a Bible conference.

In any case, since we all want Microsoft to give first-class support to ODF (and their recent announcement suggests that it will be able to be the default save format at user option, a good victory) why would it at all be strange for the ODF editor to visit Redmond or talk to MS people? Should an IBM minder be present at all times, like a politburo official?