From the Outside Looking In: Analysts, Developers on Microsoft, Open Standards

News Analysis: Analysts and developers speak out about Microsoft's recent Office open standard announcement.

Is Microsoft embracing open standards or strangling it with its proposed open XML Office standards? It all depends on who you ask.

If you believe Jean Paoli, co-inventor of XML and a Microsoft senior developer, Microsoft hopes "to create an open standard that will enable customers, technology providers and developers around the globe to work with the Office Open XML formats without barriers, with or without Microsoft products."

Many, though, like Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst for Jupiter Media, are taking "a wait-and-see approach on Microsofts announcement, because of past XML-based format shenanigans, where Microsoft: got behind XML, but restricted usefulness to most users; claimed to open up XML schemas, when less was the case; and touted its new Office 12 formats as XML—theyre XML-based—and open—which they are not."

Hes not the only one who wants to look this open-standard gift horse in the mouth before buying it.

"Whats more problematic from a technical point of view is that, by judging the Office 12 schema doc posted by Brian Jones, a product manager on the Office team, back a couple of months ago, a subset of tags are documented but a lot of things are missing in order for others to interoperate," said one independent software developer, who requested anonymity.

"The key point is I dont believe the missing bits will find their way by the time the product ships. A big part of the missing bits are: semantics between tags, OLE [object linking and embedding], DRM [digital rights management]. All of that needs to be known in order to operate across platforms whether on the client-side, or through Web services." is more concerned with licensing issues than code issues.

While characterizing Microsofts move to go the standards route with its OpenXML formats as "definitely encouraging," there are still some unanswered questions, said Adam Gross, director of product marketing with

"Questions remain on patents, licensing and other controls. If Microsoft will really make it [OpenXML] as open as ODF [OpenDocument format] is, that is real progress," Gross said.

"While this is a welcome development, it may have a long way to go to meet the minimum standards that governments, open-source communities and the wider industry have adopted in Microsofts absence," said Simon Phipps, Sun Microsystems Inc.s chief open source officer.

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While no one is sure what Microsoft is doing, everyone is sure they know why Microsoft is making this move.

"It appears to me that Microsoft is trying to respond to organizations requirements for an open, international standards-based way to store the content theyre creating," said Dan Kusnetzky, IDC VP of system software research.

Stacey Quandt, research director for the Aberdeen Group, spelled it out.

"Microsoft is addressing the benefits that come from organizations standardizing on the OASIS OpenDocument, which is not supported by Microsoft."

"The central issue is the ability to do guarantee future access to documents, and this is best achieved through open-source non-proprietary solutions such as the OpenDocument format, which IBM, Sun, Adobe and others support.

"The primary target of this initiative is government customers who require transparency and interoperability across office productivity applications and with line-of-business systems," said Quandt.

Louis Suarez-Potts, the community manager for, was more pointed with his comments.

"Obviously, its a ploy to counter moves toward OpenDocument and open source by governments throughout the world."

Suarez-Potts is also concerned that the Microsoft Office format might "remain proprietary, then making it an ISO standard even with a more relaxed licensed associated with it still does not necessarily mean that other vendors can freely employ the format, though they can more easily write to it and otherwise use it."

"Even though it [OpenXML] is being submitted to a standards group, there is still a license attached," noted another independent software vendor, who asked not to be identified.

"Why is that a key issue? Because the folks in the open-source camp cant use it. One of the restrictions of the license is that you cant distribute it freely or transfer ownership of the license.

"In English, that means if an open-source group agreed to use the license (never gonna happen) and built an application with it, they can NOT provide the source code for it with the license. If you write code with a license, you can NOT share that code with me unless I go get a license, too. Pretty much against everything open source is about," the developer said.

"Do I think MS is doing this to shut open source out? Could just be," the developer said.

Sun agrees.

"Standardization of the Microsoft formats will be of no real benefit unless they are also freed from intellectual-property encumbrances, so that all developers are free to work with them, including open-source," said Suns Phipps.

Quandt also noted that in at least one previous Microsoft attempt to make a Ecma standard, the C# language, Microsoft had insisted that the standard be incompatible with the software licensed under GPL and was only compatible with software with a BSD style license."

Thus the question remains, "will Microsoft seek restrictions with the standardizing of its XML office format?" said Quandt.

Still, "For us as software developers, we will be able to do more interesting and valuable things with Office, especially Word," if Microsoft truly opens the spec, Gross said. "And the move will really help Microsoft. They can compete on having the best text-editing experience" once playing field is truly leveled.

"Adherence to myopic proprietary formats isnt where the game is played anymore," Gross said.

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