A standard form of confusion

Think of it: in how many fields outside of IT does the maker of your tools want control over what you make with those tools? The maker of your old typewriter never asked to control what you typed. Yet that’s exactly what happens when your word-processor maker controls the way your data is written to disk.

For the first time in decades, major IT users are challenging the traditional proprietary formats used by software programs.

For more than a year, it’s been fascinating to watch Microsoft fight against adoption of OpenDocument – a patent-free XML-based format created by the OASIS group (of which Microsoft is a member). Since OpenDocument was developed and advanced as a standard, major IT users who care about reducing vendor lock-in and guaranteeing future access have been studying and adopting it. Google, IBM and Sun are fully supporting the standard, the open
source OpenOffice product uses it as a native format and Microsoft Office and WordPerfect Office will soon have support.

So why is Microsoft fighting OpenDocument so aggressively that it introduced its own format (called Office Open XML) which it is trying to get accepted as a parallel standard?

Pure and simple, it’s a matter of control. OpenDocument is designed for multi-vendor use, and Microsoft is determined to maintain the vendor lock-in it traditionally had enjoyed through proprietary file formats. While OpenDocument is the product of users and vendors, Office Open XML is the product of a single vendor.

The Microsoft specification indicates a needlessly complex work, requiring 1,900 pages of documentation. While one could argue that the specification was made so bloated to discourage third-party (i.e., non-Microsoft) implementation, in reality the biggest problem is that this “standard”, despite all the documentation, is deliberately designed so that only Microsoft can create a complete implementation.

Early in January, blogger Rob Weir posted an analysis of Office Open XML (www.robweir.com/blog/2006/01/how-to-hire-guillaume-portes.html). Likening Microsoft’s format to a job posting deliberately designed so that only one individual can apply, Rob actually dug through the documentation to find components that were vaguely defined in such a way that it’s impossible for anyone but Microsoft to fully satisfy the standard.

Weir found that some of the “standard” format proposed by Microsoft includes elements such as “ autoSpaceLikeWord95 (Emulate Word 95 Full-Width Character Spacing).” In order to implement this element, you need to be able to emulate the behaviour of Micosoft Word 95 – and Microsoft certainly hasn’t provided any instructions on how to do this. Third parties wanting to completely implement a modern standard must reverse-engineer multiple long-obsolete versions of word processors, dating back to Microsoft Word 5.0.

So, in the Microsoft format, you get a specification that is horribly bloated, and at least part of that bloat is used to add a pile of features that are tied to specific Microsoft products.

While some facilities may be built into other programs to read the new Microsoft format, none but Microsoft’s own products (or those who obtain source licence to a pile of old software) will fully be able to implement it.

Clouding the waters further is the nature of the “Microsoft Open Specification Promise,” which claims that the company will not assert patent claims on anyone using its format. It’s not a waiver or renunciation of claims, but that long-standing legal construct, the “promise.”

Both ISO, and potential users, should see through this rather transparent attempt to maintain single-vendor dependence – the very thing OpenDocument was designed to address.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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