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What Is OpenDocument
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Microsoft's Lunge at an XML File Format

Office Open XML format is the name of Microsoft's next-generation file formats for their office suite application, Office 2007, which will be released some time next year. These formats do implement the XML standard; however, "open" they are not.

The name is even curious. Microsoft chose this name to create confusion in the market between the well-established OpenOffice project and product (which was the first implementation of the OpenDocument format, mentioned above) and Microsoft's late-coming formats. In fact, Microsoft lobbied ECMA to request that OASIS change the name from Open Office Format TC, which is when ODF became OpenDocument. Microsoft followed suit, coming right in and naming their new format Office Open XML to maximize the public confusion about the competing implementations of the XML standard.

Instead of adopting ODF (which it may do at any time), Microsoft has elected to create its own new document formats to leverage the benefits of XML inside office documents, while maintaining leverage over the interoperability of customers' IT systems. Their new file formats, called Office Open XML, are being designed under the auspices of the ECMA consortium in Europe, and will be fast-tracked to ISO next year (although ratification is not guaranteed). The ECMA specification for Office Open XML reveals that Microsoft intends to tie functions within its Office 2007 office suite, functions within its new Vista operating system, and functions within its Exchange Server and SharePoint Portal Server to its new, XML-ready document file format. Continuing to tie the new XML file format not only defeats the design objectives of XML, but clearly perpetuates a familiar control by the company over customers' document data and software upgrade cycles.

Developers and observers who are technically inclined (as well as sensitive to both overt and embedded political and marketing messaging) might enjoy following Microsoft's development process for Office Open XML from Brian Jones' blog.

The DADA Theater of Lobbying Public-Sector Customers

Lobbying by Microsoft in ODF hotspots such as Massachusetts has reached Kafka-esque proportions of inanity and self-contradiction--but it has been fun to watch.

Microsoft's Alan Yates' argument for dual standards from the Massachusetts Senate Reading Room (December 14, 2005) was a stumbling oxymoron:

"What I'm really going to be talking about is Massachusetts actually opening up to more choice and more competition than the current policy has...I think that's the fundamental decision that's before us. Can Massachusetts open up to more choice, additional standards, in order to enable greater value over a period of time? And by doing that, by enabling more choice over a period of time, you avoid the industry warfare that tends to jerk governments around from one month to the next month, to one debate to the next debate to the next debate." (Microsoft's Yates' to MA: How About 2 Standards?--Transcript | GROKLAW)

Even if one respects Microsoft's right to compete in selling products in the software application markets, one would still object to the arrogant way they recast agreed-upon meanings and reframe discussions. Yates said, "I'm...talking about...Massachusetts opening up to more choice and more competition...more choice, additional standards..." Alan Yates is talking in a vacuum because the Commonwealth--through the ETRM 3.5 policy--has asserted its position as being about more choice and more competition in application software markets. As I've said before, choice and competition in the context of standards doesn't make sense, at best; it is meaningless drivel, at worst.

The difference is not nuanced. Yates here is co-opting the terms "choice" and "competition" to his own meanings, quite off-topic. This is intended to confuse the audience. Marcel Duchamp is applauding in his grave, because the audience is confused. Microsoft's influence is so penetrating that many people believe anything they say, even things that are laughably false. But to the ODF cognoscenti, this kind of thing is extremely cynical at face value, so knowingly manipulative.

If Microsoft were sincerely interested in competing and playing fair, they would respond to the customer's request: they would insert ODF capabilities in their Office software. If they didn't feel they could slip in a bogus "open" standard file format through sheer bullying brute force, they would not take this absurdist tack. Their petulant response to ODF is telling. Ultimately, it's pure entertainment.

When Office 2007 is released next year, the market will indicate its appetite for an Office Open XML file format, which is not open by the accepted definition of open standard software. Customers comfortable with another decade's commitment to a Microsoft-only infrastructure will not be wary of a commitment to the Office Open XML file format. But those sensitive to single-vendor control of their data will hold out for ODF and its openly interoperable solutions.

Standardizing Document Formats is a Natural Progression

As technologies mature, shared facilities always become standardized. This has been true of common units of measure, construction materials (screws, pipes, fasteners, wood and metal subcomponents such as the two-by-four, among others), as well as Internet protocols (TCP/IP). There is every reason to expect that document format standardization around an open specification (exemplified by ODF) should drive competition into document tools markets and drive innovation toward all the things we can do with documents and the data within. If opening and sharing the Internet protocol, TCP/IP, gave us email, instant messaging, and web services, as well as commercial phenomena such as, Google, eBay, Craigslist, and other imaginative new ways of communicating and finding others with common interests, then standardizing and ensuring the wide dissemination of an open file format should yield similarly exciting tools, processes, and ways of accessing information in and across the sphere of documents.

OpenDocument was created to overcome many of the problems of proprietary document formats. Yet it is not solely a competitive missile directed at the established format owner, Microsoft. This is because the implications of an open file format for documents generate more value for the global ICT infrastructure at all levels than could ever be represented in a single company. And the origins and impact of the OpenDocument Format are far beyond the commercial sphere.

Information or data created by users and organizations and stored in office documents belongs to the creators of that data. Yet, when the most common document formats are proprietary (or not open), users lose control of their data through dependency upon the software company or entity that controls the data format. When the controlling entity makes changes to its format, this forces software reacquisition upon users, which can be expensive as well as unnecessary. The OpenDocument Format, by being openly developed and having no impediments to its usage or access, provides an excellent solution to this problem of control by offering an open standard data format for use in all kinds of software--free as well as commercial.

OpenDocument cannot avoid being defined today by the established scenarios it controverts. However, it is important to be mindful that OpenDocument's implications extend to doing things with documents and information that have not been invented (nor imagined) yet. Nor could OpenDocument's potential ever be successfully defined in the popular imagination within the gross limits of the model of personal computing and connectivity we know today.


At one time the main interface for working with information in documents was the software application (an office suite or a text editor of some kind); now, the main interface is the document itself, and it won't matter what application you use. The OpenDocument Format is bringing the world from an application-centric model of computing to a document-centric model of computing. This means that creating new business processes will be as easy as typing a memo on a PC or working with a small connected device.

Application-centrism isn't necessarily bad, unless a single company owns and hides the software application's code and all the data created by it. Where PC users have been accustomed for years to the constipation of version madness--the frustration from work stoppages caused by the frequent incompatibility of documents with software applications of different vintages--OpenDocument Format resets the bar for ease of access to the document data. And it is cause for hope among organizations with even modest aspirations for longer document life cycles and smoother business processes.

Sam Hiser is Vice President & Director Business Affairs at the OpenDocument Foundation, Inc. He was advisor to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Information Technology Division on its pilot of OpenDocument-ready software this year. Hiser also blogs at

1. Gary Edwards, President of the OpenDocument Foundation, coined this term.

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