Microsofts Open XML Project Deemed a Short-Term Fix

Critics say the installable software plug-ins created by the Open XML Translator project are a stopgap measure that will probably not be acceptable to governments in the long run.

Microsofts move to set up an open-source project that will allow translation between its Office Open XML format and the OpenDocument Format is a welcome first step, but not a long-term solution to the problem, industry players said on July 6.

They were responding to Microsofts announcement of the Open XML Translator project, which will be posted on SourceForge, the open-source software development Web site.

The goal of the project is to allow open participation and the free use of the software, with the source code available under the BSD license.

Marino Marcich, the managing director of the ODF Alliance, an advocacy group of vendors, academic groups and technical organizations in more than 40 countries, told eWEEK in an interview from Europe that Microsofts move was a good sign overall and a recognition of the ODF Formats acceptance by the general public.

"I am not really surprised that they have created the Open XML Translator project, which is a belated recognition on their part that ODF has arrived and that it is the standard of choice by governments around the world," he said.

But Marcich was surprised that Microsoft was making this an open-source project, particularly given that there were already several projects already underway to facilitate translation between the two formats.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about how Microsoft bowed to pressure to interoperate with ODF.

While welcoming the Open XML Translator project as a "first baby step," Marcich did sound a note of caution, saying that it remained to be seen what the Redmond, Wash., software giant would do going forward.

The installable software plug-ins that would be created under the project were also really "only a bridge, a stopgap measure that will probably not be acceptable to governments around the world over the long term. Plug-ins simply dont give the benefits of open file formats and standards," he said.

Converters and plug-ins are not solutions to the problem as governments across the globe want access to their vital records and data and are looking to separate the document from the application, which plug-in technologies do not do, and which would open the market up to greater innovation and more product and price competition, he said.

The translators would also not be perfect, Jean Paoli, general manager for interoperability and XML architecture at Microsoft, told eWEEK, as "OpenXML and ODF are very different formats and some hard decisions are going to have to be made when translating from one format to another, like where we have OpenXML features that are not supported in ODF."

But Marcich countered that Microsoft had yet to clearly elucidate exactly what these potentially problematic features for translation were, saying that Microsoft was welcome to join the OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee, where these issues could be addressed.

Asked what the ODF Alliance would most like to see Microsoft do, Marcich said "to make ODF native to their suite," but he acknowledged that was unlikely to happen anytime soon, if ever.

An IBM spokesperson said Microsofts decision to create an open-source Open XML Translator project was a "welcome development, and will be seen as baby steps in the right direction."

IBM is encouraging all vendors to support the OpenDocument Format as this would accelerate the pace of ODF adoption, and make it easier for governments to bring their information over to pure ODF software "with all the cost savings, compatibility and innovation that it promises," he said.

But the spokesperson also pointed to the fact that, apart from putting the project into the community for group development, it is not much different from the plug-ins that other industry groups have already committed to building.

For his part, Simon Phipps, Suns chief open-source officer, said in a posting on his blog that he was "delighted Microsoft has recognized the importance of ODF and no longer oppose it.

"In fact, I invite them to finally engage with the OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee, which they have long been free and able to do but for their public posture towards OpenDocument ... However, the move they announced today really is the absolute minimum they could do," he said.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about how the testing of an ODF plug-in for all versions of Microsoft Office dating back to Office 97.

Phipps added that Microsofts translator move did not change his view on best practice for government "one bit." The right approach for governments is to use a file format that is an open, completely no-strings-attached standard, designed with multiple implementations in mind and actually implemented in multiple products, he said.

"Today thats ISO26300 OpenDocument … The main lesson I draw from all this, though, is that if we want to see Microsoft behaving in a way that respects customers and standards, they will need to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way to that conclusion," he said.

ACT (The Association for Competitive Technology), which has previously been accused of being an association founded and cultivated solely to protect Microsofts interests in Washington, is also unhappy about the move, warning that technology mandates like ODF-only policies were "wrong-headed and can harm innovation and government effectiveness."

Governments are far better served by pursuing goals-based policies rather than picking specific winners and losers in the marketplace as, "ultimately, one standard doesnt fit all," Morgan Reed, ACTs executive director, said in a statement.

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