Don Christie: The case against OOXML

The president of the New Zealand Open Source Society puts the case against an OOXML standard

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

International open standards define common, agreed best practices for developing most of the products we use today. Whether it be chemicals used to soften clothing or how to build a system to run on an internet browser, such as Firefox.

The agreement of these practices allow consumers and nations, such as New Zealand, to live our lives with the relative surety that whether we buy from Gap or Farmers, our decisions will not bring us harmful effects.

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

The benefits that this process has produced are that Microsoft, after nearly 30 years of secrecy, prosecutions and massive fines, has finally published some of the inner workings of its systems. This is good for people who wish to interoperate accurately and consistently with Microsoft’s software and files.

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

It isn’t. What is required is documentation from Microsoft defining exactly how its applications behave when interpreting these files. No-one else is producing these files, all that is required is the ongoing ability to read them accurately. Alternatively, Microsoft could offer a standard for interpreting legacy file formats and support existing international standards going forward. This indeed would be the normal way to proceed.

Some of this documentation has, in fact, been recently provided. It is also worth noting that applications like OpenOffice.org often do a better job of opening old MSOffice files than MSOffice 2008.

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

Nothing much. Applications that want to be standards-compliant will support the well-defined and broadly accepted ODF standard. They will be able to compete on features and general cleverness. Just as Firefox and Safari do when interpreting HTML files, but then have a ton of different usability features to make the task of browsing the web a more enjoyable experience.

Why not just one standard for all?

If there are fundamental differences in what is trying to be achieved, separate standards are valid. For example, HTML is different from PDF and ODF. However, spreadsheets, word-processors and presentation software all carry out the same fundamental tasks, whether it is Lotus, OpenOffice or MSOffice actually carrying out these tasks. In these cases, one standard brings huge economic and competitive benefits to the industry and the wider economy. Think about TCP/IP underpinning what we know today as the internet. One standard, huge variety in output, huge economic and social benefits.

Vint Cerf, father of the internet, knows about the success and value of totally open common standards. He says: “If OOXML is adopted, it leads to a problem of duplicate formats for document exchange. That duplication is bad for interoperability: in the internet world, standards-makers work hard on agreeing “one way to do things, and then evolving it ... We don’t reinvent the wheel”.

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

Many of these “features” are still Microsoft secret sauce and probably encumbered by patents. Without them in the specification, the results of having an open standard for MSOffice file formats are moot.

Should governments adopt OOXML as a document standard?

Not right now. The cost to the industry of having to support multiple standards would be a gross misuse of taxpayer’s money.

A January 2008 report from Becta, the UK government’s lead agency for information and communications technology (ICT) in education, says:

“We believe that these arrangements to access and use the functionality to interoperate with competitor products in Microsoft Office 2007 present technical difficulties. These difficulties are likely to make most users disinclined to use competitor products and thus competition will be damaged.”

And it announces their complaint to the UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT):

“We have, therefore, complained to the Office of Fair Trading, alleging that Microsoft’s approach to interoperability will marginalise the document standard increasingly used by its competitors and that this will have the effect of damaging the uptake of competitor products. The interoperability that Microsoft makes available in Office 2007 for competitor products is less than it makes available for its own family of products. We argue that this puts competition at risk and is an abuse of a dominant position by Microsoft. The OFT is considering our complaint.”

Clearly Becta does not believe that Microsoft’s efforts to get OOXML accredited as an ISO standard will change the situation, nor does it think the outcome will be beneficial.

Don Christie wants to make it clear that when he or the NZ Open Source Society is quoted on this topic, neither speak for Standards NZ.

“We do not know what its views on OOXML are until it announces its final decision. The NZOSS is only one participant on the OOXML Advisory Committee which contains a wide variety of perspectives from different stakeholders, some of whom are more positive about OOXML than others,” he says.

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