Bluster keeps the ODF / OOXML debate afloat

In anticipation of an international debate over the viability of Microsoft's OOXML document format still slated for February, the company makes a key policy adjustment while leaving third parties to take their argument outside, as it were.

It is a little over a month away from the next meeting of the International Organization for Standardization's JTC1 committee in Geneva, where the matter of whether Microsoft has adequately addressed concerns raised by 29 member countries as to whether its Office Open XML format should be granted international standard status. Some 11 of those countries were actively opposed to the measure when the question first came to a vote last September.

In a move perhaps to gain favor with ISO evaluators, Microsoft Office Program Manager Brian Jones revealed yesterday, the company will add the old binary formats last used as the default formats in Office 2003, to the list of intellectual property covered by its Open Specification Promise. Essentially, the unilateral promise states that it will refrain from suing anyone who makes use of that IP -- for example, in an implementation of a document translator -- so long as that party refrains from suing Microsoft for copyright or patent violations on the part of that same IP.


Some ISO members, among others, have expressed concern that Microsoft's efforts to provide format translators between its old, proprietary formats and its new, relatively open ones could be perceived as a way of locking customers into Microsoft's products and services. The extension of the Promise could ease fears among licensees of the old binary formats that they may find themselves legally encumbered from distributing a program that translates .DOC or .XLS documents into anything else, let alone ODF.

Microsoft's move comes a week after a white paper from consulting firm Burton Group took the competing Open Document Format to task for essentially not being ready for prime time.

The Group's report was based on reports previously delivered to its private clients, advising them to plan to move their existing document frameworks away from Office 2003 format, or whatever else they happened to be using, to OOXML. Although OOXML is far more difficult to understand and interpret to the human eye than ODF, the Group argued, OOXML is more adaptable and designed more for extensibility, taking the term "open" far deeper than just a synonym for "knowable."

But the Group went one step further, if only that far: It advised clients to steer clear of the whole format superiority debate, in order to avoid getting dragged down into what could be called "Office politics."

"ODF is insufficient for complex real-world enterprise requirements, and it is indirectly controlled by Sun Microsystems, despite also being an ISO standard," the Burton Group's Guy Creese and Peter O'Kelly wrote. "It's possible that IBM, Novell, and other vendors may be able to put ODF on a more customer-oriented trajectory in the future and more completely integrate it with the W3C content model, but for now ODF should be seen as more of an anti-Microsoft political statement than an objective technology selection."

In another part, the Burton team implied that perhaps the entire reason for OOXML becoming accepted as a standard was in response to how ODF's proponents choose to manage it as an international standard.

"Broad recognition of OOXML as a legitimate (real and de facto) standard is probably not what some of Microsoft's competitors had in mind when they started promoting ODF standardization as a reason to displace Microsoft Office," they wrote. Citing Vendor Independent Messaging, IDAPI, and IBM's and Apple's original OpenDoc project, they continued, "In these and other earlier encounters, when Microsoft's competitors sought to collectively compete with Microsoft by leveraging standards, the everybody-but-Microsoft standards have generally failed to achieve significant market momentum. Of course, Microsoft has also attempted and failed to direct some industry standards, such as Java."

Whether Creese and O'Kelly's report would have been read by many without remarks such as these is questionable, but they certainly did provoke some heated responses.

Rather than attack some of their more questionable arguments, such as ODF being a political statement rather than as the platform for Lotus' next possible software suite for Mac OS, the ODF Alliance issued a treatise (PDF available here) taking apart many of the Burton Group's claims one-by-one, including the notion that theirs is the latest "everybody-but-Microsoft" standard to fail to attain momentum.

"The report fails to note that the market has evolved in the past 15 years and that that customers are better educated in the liabilities of vendor lock-in, and are now more aware of the important role that open standards play in ensuring interoperability," the ODF Alliance writes. "Whereas 15 years ago, it was enough to require the use of [commercial off-the-shelf] software, today procurement is increasingly requiring the use of open standards. In our opinion, it would be far better to look at the example of Internet and web standards to see how Microsoft's competitors, and Microsoft itself, have succeeded. ODF has the potential to be the same competitive force for office productivity applications, using the same standards-based approach."

While not responding to either the Burton Group report or the ODF Alliance retort directly, Linux Foundation board member Andrew Updegrove used the opportunity of renewed attention to the subject to offer a very long and exhaustively detailed history of the entire affair. In it, Updegrove offers four possible outcomes to the battle regardless of what action the ISO takes next month. In one possibility, OOXML remains the dominant format; in another, ODF gains ground and overtakes it.

But that last possibility, Updegrove concedes, is a long shot. "It is hard to imagine this being the near term outcome," he writes. "However, the future of SaaS [software-as-a-service] introduces a significant wildcard into the equation. If Microsoft miscalculates spectacularly in devising its business strategy, or suffers a monumental loss in an antitrust action, it might have no choice but to convert to ODF at some point in the future."

In any of the four possible events, he states, Microsoft will face something it hasn't faced in the Office applications space for many years: real competition.

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