February 22, 2007 7:05 AM PST
Perspective: Microsoft's amusing standards stanceSee all Perspectives
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Less than a year after CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) became a W3C Recommendation, Microsoft co-submitted the competing XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language) to the World Wide Web Consortium. (One of the authors of that submission was Jean Paoli. It is unlikely that he did much of the technical work on XSL, and he was probably listed for political reasons. Similarly, he was listed as an editor of the XML specification after Microsoft made some phone calls.)
As a result of being in the same organization at the same time, both CSS and XSL suffered. One can speculate that if both CSS and XSL had failed, Microsoft would have offered a proprietary style sheet language, perhaps based on its own patents.
In 2006, a year or so after ODF entered the fray, Microsoft submitted OOXML to the standardization process. Are we seeing a pattern here? Is Microsoft undermining standards by submitting them? Could it be that it wants both ODF and OOXML to fail?
If both specifications fail, the most likely result is that the world continues to use Microsoft's proprietary "doc," "xls" and "ppt" formats. This is consistent with Microsoft's attitude in other areas in which the company is pushing closed formats. For example, the MSN Messenger protocol is not public.
As mentioned above, I'm no fan of either specification. Both are basically memory dumps with angle brackets around them. If forced to choose one, I'd pick the 700-page specification (ODF) over the 6,000-page specification (OOXML). But I think there is a better way.
It is possible to build a new format on top of the universally understood HTML and CSS. Additional semantics (say, formulas in spreadsheets) can be encoded as attributes, as do microformats, and CSS 3 offers advanced features for printing (e.g., footnotes and header and footers).
To show that it's possible, Bert Bos and I published a book using HTML and CSS. One significant benefit of this approach is that documents can be viewed in common Web browsers. There's a billion of them out there.
One fun thing to do in Web browsers is to check how well documents conform to standards. For example, you can pass the URL of Microsoft's letter to W3C's validator. Doing so reveals that the letter is not written according to the HTML specification. The validator finds 33 errors in the most lenient mode. (One of the errors is the use of the "layer" element. (The "layer" element?!)
Microsoft--please--if you think standards are so important, why not start using them?
Håkon Wium Lie is chief technology officer of . Before joining Opera in 1999, he worked at W3C where he was responsible for the development of Cascading Style Sheets, a concept he proposed while working with Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1994.
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