Redmond's real motive for pushing Open XML

Frank Hayes takes a cynical look

I don’t mind a little cynicism — it’s a natural and only mildly toxic by-product of paying attention. So recently, when Microsoft’s Office Open XML file format was rejected as an international standard, I wasn’t bothered that Microsoft said it was “extremely delighted” by the result.

Some observers called that phrase “spin”. Me, I trust it was just ordinary Microsoft cynicism.

Or is it optimism? Sure, Microsoft’s proposed standard was rejected, which means some organisations — especially governments — won’t want to use OOXML as their document standard. But OOXML didn’t lose by a lot, right? And in February, Microsoft will get one final chance to fix up the problems and get OOXML accepted. And then we can all use it, because it will be a formal international standard — right?

Hold that thought.

Now consider this, from Brian Jones, a Microsoft manager who has worked on OOXML for six years. In July, Jones was asked on his blog whether Microsoft would actually commit to conform to an officially standardised OOXML. His response:

“It’s hard for Microsoft to commit to what comes out of Ecma [the European standards group that has already ok’d OOXML] in the coming years, because we don’t know what direction they will take the formats. We’ll of course stay active and propose changes based on where we want to go with Office 14. At the end of the day, though, the other Ecma members could decide to take the spec in a completely different direction. ... Since it’s not guaranteed, it would be hard for us to make any sort of official statement.”

Now that’s cynical. After all this work to make OOXML a formal, independent standard — a standard created and promoted by Microsoft, remember — Microsoft won’t agree to follow it.

That puts Microsoft’s giddy public optimism in perspective, doesn’t it?

To at least some people at Microsoft, this isn’t about meeting the needs of customers who want a stable, solid, vendor-neutral format for storing and managing documents. It’s just another skirmish with the open-source crowd and rivals like IBM, and all that matters is winning.

What a waste. And what a betrayal of trust. It’s unfortunate. Most users of Microsoft Office don’t care about this whole standards brouhaha — they just use Office because it’s Office.

But for organisations that need a well-defined, XML-based format to manage huge numbers of documents that may be archived for decades, this is important.

These customers want a standard that Microsoft will promise to use — even if it’s not convenient for the company.

They want a standard that Microsoft won’t arbitrarily change in order to lock them in or block competitors out.

They want a standard that third-party software makers and in-house programmers can use to build tools for managing documents, searching contents, extracting data and converting text.

Today, OOXML can’t meet those requirements. With work — a lot of work — it might.

But OOXML wasn’t designed to be an open, vendor-neutral standard. Trying to force-fit it into that mould by February will make it either brittle or useless, neither of which will help customers who want a standard document format.

OOXML needs to be worked over carefully, over time, with an eye to meeting customers’ needs.

Doing that wouldn’t cost Microsoft any business — just some time, some bragging rights and a little control.

Whether Microsoft will abandon this fast-track process and hunker down to make OOXML right — and work with its rivals — will go a long way towards telling us how much Microsoft deserves our trust when it comes to industry standards.

And it will tell us just how deep Microsoft’s cynicism runs.

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Tags managementMicrosoftopen XML

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