How a standard can kill a standard (OOXML versus ODF)

by Andy Oram

As the U.S. Independence Day approaches, we can honor the shot heard around the world when the IT department of the state of Massachusetts declared a couple years ago they would adopt the Open Document Format.

Although many people inside and outside the state detected more than a whiff of anti-Microsoft sentiment in the announcement, it didn't preclude the use of Microsoft products. (Not long after, a plug-in was developed--not by Microsoft!--to produce ODF from Microsoft Office programs.) But instead of adopting to public pressure and supporting ODF, Microsoft lobbied international standards organizations to adopt its own proprietary format as a standard instead.

Now the state has formally backpedaled, according to a posting by standards expert Andrew Updegrove. It has declared Microsoft's OOXML as an acceptable format for state documents.

Dueling standards are nothing new, but it's not in the public interest for a lightweight, publicly developed standard with multiple alternative implementations to be driven out by a monster of a specification (6,000 pages) that has legal encumbrances and other complexities that mean it can be implemented by only one vendor.


3 Comments

Andy Oram
2007-07-02 13:10:19
At Andrew Updegrove's suggestion, I'm including here the comment I sent to the Massachusetts standards committee.


---


I am writing to strongly oppose the inclusion of the Ecma-376 Office
Open XML File Formats as an accepted format for Massachusetts state
documents. I also want to protest the addition of this format with
minimal publicity and a limited time for comment during a busy summer
period when many people are away.


My vantage point, in addition to being a citizen of Massachusetts,
stems from my role as an editor and writer creating books and articles
on many technical topics, both open source and Microsoft-related.
Working in the publishing industry, I am very aware of the strengths
and weaknesses of different formats and the implications of using
them. I have also spent years talking to people around the world
about standards and open formats, and have followed the ODF/OOXML
debate from the start.


In your very own draft, in the Information Domain section, you state
one of the benefits of XML as:


Long-term reuse of data, with no lock-in to proprietary tools or
undocumented formats


But that's true only if the particular XML implementation is
unencumbered and disconnected from proprietary formats. The Ecma-376
standard fails these tests, and therefore violates the principle
stated in the standard.


Please look beyond the formality of adoption by a standards committee
and consider the features of the actual standard. The encumbrances on
The Ecma-376 standard have been widely aired and thoroughly
documented. A useful summary appears here (it is on my company's web
site, but we do not officially endorse it):


http://www.onlamp.com/pub/a/onlamp/2007/06/14/achieving-openness-a-closer-look-at-odf-an\d-ooxml.html
It is not in the public interest for Open Document Format, a
lightweight, publicly developed standard with multiple alternative
implementations, to be driven out by a monster of a specification
(6,000 pages) that has legal encumbrances and other complexities that
mean it can be implemented by only one vendor.


Zaine Ridling
2007-07-03 07:54:18
I have to agree. Microsoft's strong-armed lobbying makes a mockery of the standards process. If MS-OOXML gains ISO certification, then all technical "standards" will devolve back to mere "de facto" standards; that is, mere market share. And guess who wins that game?


Seems sorta planned when you think of it that way. Muddy the waters to the point where no standard counts. Thanks Andy, I wouldn't have thought of it this way.

Brotherred
2007-07-03 10:19:13
"I have to agree. Microsoft's strong-armed lobbying makes a mockery of the standards process."


Mockery of a standard process? Heck it makes a joke out of the government at all levels.


Many in the third world see the US government as synonymous with Microsoft. Now we will just move the ISO governance to Redmand, Washington as well.