Microsoft Will Support ODF If It Doesn't 'Restrict Choice Among Formats'

In a policy document specifically timed for release this afternoon, Microsoft's general managers for interoperability, Tom Robertson and Jean Paoli, make a play for ownership of the standards issue facing users of competing document formats, by saying the company would support ratification of its own Open XML format along with OpenDocument Format (ODF) as ISO standards, if and only if doing so would promote choice among the world's consumers.

"We should expect the creation of new formats in the future as technology evolves, and, as has always been the case, users should be able to choose the formats that work best for them," reads the team's open letter this afternoon. "Microsoft has consistently supported choice, so it took no steps to hinder ISO/IEC's ratification of ODF 1.0 and supported ODF 1.0's addition to the American National Standards list. Microsoft will continue to support recognition of ODF 1.0 and other formats on such lists around the world as long as doing so in no way restricts choice among formats."

In their letter, Robertson and Paoli paint a picture of the open source ODF format as perhaps trying to monopolize the standards process, by virtue of having claimed the "open" mantle first, though standards judges may be selectively unaware of the fact that Microsoft Office includes the applications chosen by most of the world's computer users. Certainly there's a place for ODF in the world, the interoperability team continues, and users are free to make that choice for whatever reasons they'd want to do so.

"ODF's design may make it attractive to those users that are interested in a particular level of functionality in their productivity suite or developers who want to work that format," they write. "Open XML may be more attractive to those who want richer functionality, the ability to integrate business data into their documents by defining their own document schema, or a format that was designed to be backwards compatible with existing documents. This is not to say that one is better than the other - just that they meet different needs in the marketplace.

"It is not unlike how some people wanting to travel from one place to another will choose an automobile and others will choose to fly," the letter continues. "Both are modes of transportation but they are fundamentally different and serve different communities, just as ODF 1.0 and Open XML are both document formats, but are fundamentally different, meeting different needs among users."

Just as the automobile can co-exist with the airplane, ODF and Open XML can and should co-exist, the team writes. They go on to imply that standards agencies should not place themselves in a role similar to restricting transportation solely to the ground level.

The letter concludes by citing Novell, Apple, Toshiba, the Library of Congress, and others for having backed the ratification of Open XML as an ECMA standard. "ISO/IEC is now in a position to ratify that strong work and provide additional choice among the formats that it recognizes," Paoli and Robertson write. "We and a growing community of users and vendors support that step."

In an exclusive interview with BetaNews, Tom Robertson told us Microsoft perceives the standards process as one of four "toolsets" the company uses to achieve interoperability among protocols and formats. But when the standards process fails, he said, the other three "toolsets" could be relied upon as a backup plan.

Standards, Robertson told BetaNews, "are a very important tool to use to address interoperability. But I would note that they're not the only tool, and they may not be the most appropriate tool in a particular set of circumstances. An example there would be where you have a cycle of innovation that's more rapid than the cycle of standardization. In that case, I do wonder whether standardization is the most appropriate way, and shouldn't you look to some of the other tools that you have available to you, to address interoperability?

"But I don't want to diminish the role of standardization," Robertson continued. "Microsoft has acted in hundreds of standardization activities around the world every year, and implements thousands of standards in its products. It's really important, and we'll continue to develop and refine our work in the standards space going forward."

More from our interview with Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft, later in BetaNews.

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