Microsoft has hit back at critics, including IBM, which voted against approving the software companys Office Open XML format as an Ecma standard, claiming it is nothing more than a vendor-dictated specification that documents proprietary products via XML.
Ecma International announced the approval of the new standard Dec. 6 following a meeting of its general assembly and said it will begin the fast track process for adoption of the Office Open XML formats as an ISO international standard in January 2007.
In response to that announcement Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and standards at IBM, said in a blog posting that IBM “voted no today in Ecma on approval for Microsofts Open XML spec. I think we have made it clear in the last few months why we think the OpenDocument Format (ODF) ISO standard is vastly superior to the Open XML spec.
“ODF is what the world needs today to drive competition, innovation, and lower costs for customers. It is an example of a real open standard versus a vendor-dictated spec that documents proprietary products via XML. ODF is about the future, Open XML is about the past. We voted for the future,” Sutor said.
Alan Yates, general manager of Information Worker Business Strategy at Microsoft, told eWEEK that the vote on the standard was 20 in favor and one, IBM, against.
That, he said is an indication of how IBM is isolated from the other members in this regard and “is an indication of where they stand.”
“It is just unfortunate that IBM has taken this position. Clearly Open XML and ODF serve different requirements,” he said. “ODF takes more of a Greenfields approach, while Open XML takes more of a practical approach toward documenting compatibility and interoperability.”
Yates said he does not understand why a large company such as IBM is at the forefront of creating conflict around the Open XML format.
“They are also really focused on mandating ODF, mandating a single format that their commercial products support. This push to mandate ODF seems to be so antithetical to what they ordinarily talk about around open standards, interoperability and choice,” he said.
The Open XML specification is very detailed, running to some 6,000 pages, as both Microsoft and the Ecma technical committee felt this was important to avoid guesswork and make clear what results applications using the specification would get, he said.
With regard to criticisms that the specification is “ponderously long,” Yates said there are a lot of irrational criticisms of the Open XML specification, of which this is one.
“I cant imagine our customers asking us to create a specification that was not backward-compatible with the options they have used,” he said. “The British Library and the Library of Congress were pushing us for more and more detail as they want to make sure that the documents they have, if they go forward into this new format, are rendered with high fidelity in truth to the original.”
The technical committee did a lot of work making sure the specification was architecturally clear, straightforward and well-organized, so that a developer who needs to use just part of it could also easily do that.
Some 750 developers have been working with the format, and so far “they havent come up with that complaint very often,” Yates said.
Asked about the claim that Open XML is not universally interoperable as it has ties to Windows, which prevents full interoperability with other platforms, Yates said Open XML has no ties to Windows.
“This is a bogus argument. What Open XML does is enable embedding code from any platform—whether that is Java code from Linux or ActiveX code from Windows. Applications are allowed to do this as they have done this in the past. A lot of the committees work was on ensuring it was cross-platform friendly,” he said.
There is also no truth to claims that the Open XML specification does not define macros or embedded scripts, Yates said, noting that the specification has been there for many months now and the final specification is there for all to see.
“That claim is particularly odd when the ODF format does not include anything for formulas in spreadsheets and is being revised in separate OASIS committees to address the gaps it has with the Open XML format, including accessibility, support for the integration of external XML data and the lack of formulas,” he said.
For its part, Microsoft is investing in the coexistence of the two specifications, including the plug-ins for them, and has created an open-source project around this so that everyone will have access to the code and be able to see the decisions that are being made.
“We are bending over backward at this point to reassure customers that we really are in favor of coexistence and choice,” Yates said. “They can choose ODF or Open XML, and whatever choice they make is right for them and we will work hard to make it work.”
Some, like Melanie Wyne, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice, in Washington, agree.
“Though Office Open XMLs detractors decry competition as confusing to consumers, the consensus Ecma vote belies their argument,” Wyne said. “Having more to choose from, governments and consumers will be better off, period. … This means that consumers will have more choice in the marketplace. … An essential outcome of the Ecma process is the creation and acceptance of another competitive document standard.”
Ecma has a special relationship with the ISO, which allows it to prepare the standard for ISO consideration. “As a result of that, the ISO has agreed to free up the process under which that standard is considered,” Yates said.
While there is no set timeframe for this, it would probably take about 12 months, as there is an early process that looks at the actual work, followed by a five-month process where it is considered and evaluated by the standard organizations in each country, followed by a period of final publication, he said.