Microsoft is accusing some competitors of exactly the same thing of which they have criticized the software company: pushing an exclusive standard to the detriment of all others and not enabling choice.
These sharp words from Microsoft follow the formation last week of the OpenDocument Format Alliance, a coalition of more than 35 organizations from across the world whose goal is to enable governments to have direct management and greater control over their documents.
The alliance—whose supporters include many of Microsofts Linux and open-source foes such as Corel, IBM, Novell, OpenOffice.org, Opera Software, Oracle, Red Hat and Sun Microsystems—is essentially positioning the XML-based ODF (OpenDocument Format) as the alternative to other document formats like Microsofts OpenXML, which is the new file format that will be used in Office 2007 when it ships later this year.
Alan Yates, general manager of Microsofts Information Worker Business Strategy in Redmond, Wash., this week accused the alliance, which he referred to as “Sun, IBM and their friends,” of wanting to push the ODF as an “exclusive” standard to the detriment of all others, rather than enabling choice among formats like PDF from Adobe, Microsofts OpenXML and HTML.
“Clearly, choice and competition are better than arbitrary technology preferences. Part of this confusion is clearly IBM and Sun promoting their products based on OpenOffice that have had difficulty competing in the marketplace thus far,” Yates said.
The important long-term issue is how documents can integrate with information systems via XML, he said, adding, “It is great that there is competition to help customers into this new era of open, XML-based documents.”
Simon Phipps, Suns chief open-source officer, agrees that choice and competition are clearly preferable, which is why standards exist for mature product categories, so that vendors have a baseline and can compete on implementations rather than competing on incompatible “standards,” he told eWEEK.
The ODF Alliance is only interested in one baseline, extensible standard for editable documents, just like the one standard for Web pages—HTML—and the one standard for sharing noneditable documents—PDF, he said.
“That baseline is OpenDocument, widely implemented, truly open and unencumbered, compatible with .doc, managed openly at OASIS and currently under vote as an ISO standard. … As history proves, only monopolists fear baseline standards that give their customers true choice,” Phipps said.
For his part, Bob Sutor, the vice president of standards and open source for IBM, said Microsofts accusation that the supporters of the OpenDocument Format are somehow limiting choice is “ridiculous.”
In a post to his blog, he said that “theyve tried this line before. It was ridiculous then, and its ridiculous now. Give us a break, customers are really smarter than that,” he said.
Its an insult to ODF and the OASIS process for Microsoft to claim that whats going on in ECMA is “open” or even just as open as the process under which ODF was created and is being enhanced, he said.
“Give us a break, were all really smarter than that,” he said.
The alliance is also concerned by the fact that, as technologies continue to rapidly evolve, documents are created by public-sector agencies using different applications that may not be compatible with one another today, let alone into the future.
As such, a broad cross-section of associations, academic institutions, and industry and related groups saw the need to join together to promote open solutions to this problem, the alliance said.
“Through the use of a truly open standard file format that can be implemented by numerous and varied applications, the Alliance seeks to enable governments and their constituents to use, access and store critical documents, records and information both today and in the future, independent of the applications or enterprise platforms used for their creation or future access,” the Alliance said in a statement announcing its formation.
The OpenDocument Format Alliance also claims that ODF is the only established open-standard document format, and that it enables the retrieval of information and exchange of documents between different applications, agencies and/or business partners in a platform- and application-independent way.
Some, like the state of Massachusetts, have already decided to throw their weight behind the ODF; Massachusetts is forging ahead with its implementation, set to go into effect in January 2007.
“Theres no doubt that the momentum of ODF is gaining traction worldwide as more people every day are discovering that its a better way to preserve and access documents,” said Ken Wasch, the president of the Software & Information Industry Association, an alliance member.
But Microsoft maintains that its goals are not really that different. When the software maker decided to open up its Office file formats last November and submitted them to be considered for recognition as a formal standard by Ecma International, Yates told eWEEK that the companys specification had been written to satisfy a certain number of customer requirements, much as the OpenDocument group had been.
“We have had a very different and much more ambitious set of requirements to meet. So we are meeting the requirements of backward compatibility with all of the billions of documents that are in previous Office versions,” he said.
But Suns Phipps said in December that Microsoft, by refuting OASIS and the ODF and instead choosing to get international standards body Ecma to approve its file format standard, continues to embrace a proprietary and closed approach.
“By getting its specification approved by a standards body that does not allow individual members is a strategy to make sure that Microsoft continues to control that standard and thus prevent it from becoming a baseline. At the same time, Microsoft is also trying to prevent a multilateral file format from being implemented,” Phipps said.
But one thing Microsoft and Sun do seem to agree on is the need for the two formats to interoperate.
Microsofts Yates said that, while there are multiple points differentiating Microsofts format from the OpenDocument format, “both of them are open and there will likely be a very rich ecosystem between them and providing converters between them. In the past, OpenOffice has already supported our Office formats.”
For his part, Phipps has said that the ODF file format is also designed to be compatible with Microsoft Office, as the technical committee working on this knows it is going to be used to import and export a lot of Microsoft Office documents.
Editors Note: This story was updated to add comments from IBMs Bob Sutor.