Not All Welcome Open XML Standard

Some critics dismiss Microsoft's proposed Open XML standard as little more than marketing, while others wonder just how "open" this standard really will be.

Microsoft Corp. is welcoming Ecma Internationals acceptance of its application to turn its Office Open XML Formats into a standard, but some analysts, lawyers and other companies arent so welcoming.

Alan Yates, the general manager of Microsofts Information Worker Strategy, said the Redmond, Wash.-based software company is "extremely pleased" that its Open XML file format submission has been accepted.

This "means customers and the industry are a major step forward toward preserved interoperability. We look forward to a continued open and productive process with Ecma and its members," said Yates.

Open XML, however, is not a standard yet. All the Ecma approval to date means is that a technical committee has been set up "to produce a formal standard for office productivity applications which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats, submitted by Microsoft," said Ecmas secretary general, Jan van den Beld, in a statement.

Almost no one expects there to be any hitch in the formats march through Ecma on its way to becoming a standard.

"Its not clear how much there will be by way of fireworks within Ecma, given that only IBM voted against forming the Technical Committee with the charter that was offered," said Andrew Updegrove, a partner with Gesmer Updegrove LLP, a Boston law firm, and the editor of

/zimages/6/28571.gifMicrosofts Office standard gets green light. Click here to read more.

Also, when one looks at the membership, it is dominated by companies (Canon, Fujifilm, Panasonic, etc.) that would not logically be expected to have a strong interest in the outcome," said Updegrove.

Updegrove, who had been given an early look at Microsofts Patent Covenant behind the proposed Open XML standard by Microsoft, remains unimpressed by Microsofts guarantees.

"The words of the covenant themselves are pretty good, but that there are opportunities between now and any final adoption of the XML Reference Schema by ISO where the value of that covenant could be undermined."

Gartner analysts Michael Silver and Rita Knox have more practical concerns. Even if the Office 12 standard is "open," they point out that the technology needed to make it useful isnt open.

"While it will be possible for and others to more faithfully replicate Microsofts file format in their applications, Microsofts rendering engine will not be an open specification. Thus, users of third-party products wont likely be able to display Microsofts files with 100 percent visual fidelity or to execute macros (which will be saved in a different format) without problems," said the analysts.

Some analysts think that Microsoft might actually mean for the standard to be open, but admit that there are serious questions about it.

"As far as how open the standard is, I personally think Microsoft probably means for it to be open—recognizing that if they reneg on the implied agreement downstream theyll get crucified in the court of public opinion, if not actual courts," said Stephen OGrady, principal analyst with RedMonk.

"That said, Andy Updegrove, Simon Phipps and others have raised significant concerns about the existing covenant," added OGrady.

Will Rodger, director of public policy for OSAIA (Open Source and Industry Alliance), is more than a little concerned about Microsofts control of this "open" standard.

"The proposal falls short of what even pessimists expected. We thought wed see at least a token surrendering of control in this document. Instead, were told, Microsoft wants to retain all control in order to assure that this effort will be compatible with existing Microsoft documents before moving on to round two," said Rodger.

"This begs a question: Who in his right mind would not want the next generation of office software to be compatible with Microsoft Office? Developers around the world already spend incalculable hours trying to make their products work with Microsofts precisely because Redmond refuses to open its formats to public scrutiny."

"Theres no time left for delaying tactics such as these," concluded Rodger.

So if open standards and interoperability are red herrings, what is Microsofts real goal?

According to Gartner analysts, it seems to be to combat the growing acceptance of the ODF (OpenDocument Format), which has been approved by OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), and companies and governments, like the Massachusetts state government, which are supporting open-standards.

In a later research note, Microsofts Open XML Moves May Stall OpenDocument Format, the Gartner analysts wrote, "This move will help to alter the perception that the Microsoft specification is not as open as the OpenDocument Format for Office Applications, which was approved by OASIS in May 2005 and submitted to the ISO in September.

The OASIS OpenDocument Technical Committee has increasingly been seen as a serious competitor to the Microsoft specification. Microsofts moves will likely stall that trend."

Sun Microsystems Inc. supports OpenDocument, so it comes as no surprise that Suns chief open-source officer Simon Phipps has a rather cynical view of Microsofts standardization efforts.

"If you look at Ecmas marketing material youll see that what they offer is the fastest way to get your standard out, so, theyve performed to spec," said Phipps. "The Ecma standard is Microsofts standard. This is not a multi-lateral standard."

Thanks to Microsoft, users will face the "unsavory prospect of two supposed standards. The truth is that only one of them is free of intellectual property encumbrances. Only one reflects multivendor support, and only one reflects openness. That standard is OpenDocument Format," said Phipps.

/zimages/6/28571.gifIs Open XML for real? Click here to read more.

"Microsoft has the opportunity to do the right thing and support OpenDocument. They missed," concluded Phipps.

Gartner estimates that Open XML, as a standard, wont appear until the first half of 2007.

In the meantime, other companies, such as IBM, are announcing support for ODF in their products.

IBM will be supporting ODF standard in Version 2.6 of its Workplace Managed Client application. The upcoming version of this office suite is due out in early 2006.

"The ODF standard is a key development in the management of corporate data and documents—organizations should not have to pay to access their own data, and the ODF standard ensures that key information like financial records, government contracts, payroll data and other corporate information is usable and accessible, regardless of your software platform," said Bob Sutor, VP of standards and open source at IBM, in a statement.

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