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Microsoft takes important step in crushing its rival's format

Microsoft has long profited from proprietary formats, occasionally at its competitors' expense.  However, with open standards coming into vogue, Microsoft adopted an "if you can't beat them, join them" approach, creating its own open document format.

However, its new format was not warmly received.  Microsoft hoped its Office Open XML (OOXML) format would become the office file format of choice for the industry.  The OpenDoc Society, a long term opponent of Microsoft, did not believe in Microsoft's sudden change of heart.  It sought to outcompete OOXML, with its existing format, Open Document Format (ODF).

The ODF format is already ratified as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), solidifying its place in the academic and business communities as a viable option.  When Microsoft sought ISO ratification, the OpenDoc Society lobbied against it.  It argued that having multiple open document standards defeats the purpose of having standards and that the standard would allow Microsoft to tighten its grip on computer systems.

In the end the OpenDoc Society's campaign was an exercise in futility as Microsoft's OOXML has finally been ISO certified.  The decision was leaked Tuesday ahead of the official ISO announcement, which came today.  Microsoft lauded the move, saying that it created a "level playing field" for OOXML to competed with ODF and other formats. 

Tom Robertson, Microsoft's head of interoperability and standards, stated, "Open XML joins the ranks of PDF, HTML and ODF among the ranks of document formats. I think it makes it easier for governments to offer users choice.  The control over the specification now moves into the hands of the global community. This is going to be one of the most, if not the most important document format around the world for years to come."

James Love, director of Knowledge Economy International, an organization campaigning for more open access to knowledge critical of OOXML, stated, "We are disappointed.  Microsoft's control over document formats has destroyed competition on the desktop, and the fight over OOXML is really a fight over the future of competition and innovation."

Microsoft lost an initial first vote, putting the format's future in jeopardy.  The format was allowed a second balloting, though, and this time it passed.  Of those voting, 86 percent of voting national bodies and 75 percent of the voting members -- known as P-members -- moved to approve the format.  A two-thirds approval among P-members was sufficient to ratify the format.  Voting for Microsoft's OOXML were the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan.  Voting against it were China, India and Russia.

The committee had a tough job just reaching the vote, having to deal with the 6,000 pages of code that define OOXML and with over 1,000 points of order, topics to be discussed before the vote.  Critics of OOXML point out that ODF is only 860 pages of code, making it difficult to guarantee true interoperability between the formats.  Microsoft continues to insist that OOXML will be fully interoperable with ODF.

Michiel Leenaars, OpenDoc Society boardmember and ISO voting member, stated that the standard should not have been ratified and the ratification process was too hasty.  He states, "It was mission impossible.  The process wasn't meant for this type of thing."

Nonetheless, Microsoft has secured ratification and fulfilled its critics worse fears by moving one step closer to domination of the next generation industry standard for office documents.

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Why is it controversial?
By smitty3268 on 4/2/2008 10:30:47 PM , Rating: 5
I've noticed several posts that have asked why the spec is so controversial, after all it is a spec, right?

Without taking any sides, here (I do think that having this standard out there is better than not having it at all) these are a few of the concerns some people have:

1. I'm pretty sure you can still have patents in ISO standards, even if MS has pledged not to use them.

2. Nothing is actually using the standard - MS Office uses a closely related format but it is different. Mostly because it uses some stuff they didn't want (or couldn't) put in the open standard. So people question what the whole point is if other office suites are already happy with ODF and MS isn't even using it.

3. Various parts of the spec refer to following the behavior of (for example) MS Office 97, without actually defining what that behavior is. You can buy an old copy of Office and try to figure it out, but that doesn't make for a great standard.

4. It's an over-engineered, ugly mess. It contains quite a bit of cruft that's left over from older versions of Office that no one really wants around, but MS left in for compatibility reasons in Office.

5. It has lots of non-standard pieces to it, like WMV/WMA embedded in files. Obviously MS hasn't released the codecs. This really comes down to the office suite, though, as ODF also allows for arbitrary binary files to be embedded.

6. The process to make it a standard was hurried along, to the detriment of the spec. The article above mentions 1000 issues that were taken care of, but actually only 100 of those were addressed. The other 900 were all taken care of in a single vote due to time constraints. Only 4 countries approved the changes, out of many, many more that eventually accepted this standard. (but even fewer opposed)

7. MS has no real interest in truly supporting the standard, they just wanted to be able to tick that checkbox in the marketing materials to governments, who have recently become concerned that the documents they created in Office 10 years ago may not be readable by anyone today.

8. Outrage at the way the process was abused, with MS paying groups to sign up with the ISO process to vote. Of course, they didn't actually say "Vote for us", but it was the kind of behavior that really made it seem like MS was buying the certification rather than really earning it.

9. Blind anti-MS bias/hatred.

10. Probably a lot more that I haven't listed here.

Like I said, don't attack me if you disagree with the points above, I don't think they're all valid myself. It's just some of the reasons some people were against it.

"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet.  A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis

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