Brett Roberts: The case for OOXML

Microsoft New Zealand's director of innovation puts the case for a new standard

Why should we care about global standards, or in this case the debate around Office Open XML (OOXML)?

There are literally thousands of developers already building applications which utilise or inter-operate with the current Ecma 376 standard across a variety of platforms including Linux, Windows, Mac OS and Palm OS.

In the past, document formats have been closed and this has caused problems for developers but it’s also been an issue for companies and government organisations who need to retain long-term access to information stored in those documents. Opening up the document formats via a published and freely available specification is a great step forward. Placing that specification under the stewardship of the International Organisation for Standardisation — ISO — is even more significant for the broad IT community because it means the standard is permanently in the public domain and subject to the strict controls and processes of the independent International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

What are the benefits or otherwise of OOXML to New Zealand businesses and the New Zealand public?

The OOXML specification empowers developers to create a host of new innovations for customers. Chris Auld, Intergen’s director of strategy and innovation says, “Having an internationally documented standard such as Office Open XML allows innovative New Zealand companies such as Intergen to reach a global audience.”

Intergen has announced its groundbreaking new software product TextGlow. A world-first, TextGlow allows users to view Office Open XML Word documents without having to download them, irrespective of whether or not they have Microsoft Word or any other Microsoft Office application installed.

“TextGlow is a unique product combining Office Open XML and Silverlight for the first time,” says Auld. “Microsoft Office documents have traditionally required software to be installed on the local machine. The new XML-based file format, coupled with Silverlight, has allowed us to make documents viewable directly through users’ web browsers. We are already cross-platform on Windows and Macintosh and hope to be supporting Linux in the next couple of months.”

In light of the fact that Microsoft has just published the specs for its legacy documents, why is a standard for legacy documents required?

The rigorous technical review associated with the standards process is making it possible for OOXML to support an ever broadening set of requirements.

OOXML is built around a small number of really important design goals. Top of the list is the goal of being able to represent existing binary documents in an XML based mark-up. To achieve this you have to have a document standard that fully represents all of the elements that are in those existing binary documents. OOXML is the only document standard capable of doing this. Other document standards would have to be extended beyond their design goals to provide this capability.

The publishing of the binary file formats is an additional piece of the jigsaw puzzle that ensures the availability of all Microsoft Office documents for generations to come. To ensure that documents are protected for generations to come organisations like the British Library and the US National Library of Congress have stepped up to act as digital archivists of the binary file-format specifications.

If OOXML is rejected as a global standard, what will it mean for businesses and the public?

I don’t think we’ll know initially but over time strong opponents of Office Open XML will lobby governments in particular, to adopt technology procurement preferences which favour ODF-based solutions.

As a taxpayer, I’m not convinced that removing choice will increase innovation, increase competition and therefore lower costs. I suspect the opposite will happen. More concerning is the fact that there are tens of thousands of highly-skilled programmers in New Zealand who build innovative technology solutions and are quickly becoming known in the global marketplace. We should be offering them more opportunities to win export dollars — not less.

Why not just one standard for all?

There are many reasons. Firstly, Office Open XML and ODF were built with very different design goals in mind. The argument that we only need one ISO standard document format makes as much sense as saying we only need one ISO standard programming language.

The “one standard for all” concept makes the assumption that the first standard “out of the starting blocks” will encompass current and future needs. It’s a tenuous argument.

Why does OOXML not include macros, scripting, OLE serialisation, and leave so much to be application-defined?

Competition between Office Automation suites has always been an important factor in driving much of the innovation that we enjoy in the industry and as users today. The process to standardise OOXML is a process to standardise the data format, not an application. Standardising the full application would remove the ability for different office applications to compete with each other and slow that pace of innovation.

Macros are a great example of this point. Macros provide the user with a way of telling the Office Suite what to do with information once it is loaded into memory. Standardising the macro language from Microsoft Office as part of the OOXML process would force any future applications that implemented the data format to also implement the same macro language.

Should governments adopt OOXML as a document standard?

Absolutely. Governments use the older binary formats today along with Office Open XML, PDF, HTML, RTF and TXT files. Governments, like all customers, choose the best tool for the job and OOXML offers them another option.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags ooxmlbrett roberts

Show Comments
[]