November 22, 2005 11:42 AM PST

Microsoft's standardization move divides experts

Industry observers have expressed concern about Microsoft's decision to submit the file formats for its new Office 12 applications to ECMA International, a European standards body.

The software giant said on Monday that the creation of a fully documented standard submission derived from the formats, called Microsoft Office Open XML, is likely to take about a year.

But Gary Barnett, a research director at analyst firm Ovum, said on Tuesday that he doubted that the move would result in the format becoming "truly open."

"It's a tactical move by Microsoft to give its proprietary document formats a glimmer of openness," Barnett said. He added that Microsoft is entitled to describe its file formats as open only if it "gives up control of its formats to a standards body that is accessible."

If Microsoft maintains control over its XML-based file format, it will be able to arbitrarily change the standard when it wants, enabling it to keep ahead of any competitors that wish to implement the standard, according to Barnett.

Mark Taylor, executive director of the Open Source Consortium , agreed that Microsoft's move is not as open as it might first appear. He said Microsoft appears to want to extend its "Office monopoly into the XML age. If the intention is to really play nicely with others in the open-standards game, then why patent applications in this area?" he asked.

But other industry observers were less critical of Microsoft's move, which follows the growing popularity of the OpenDocument format.

"I think it's great to see that the current discussions have forced Microsoft to be more open," said James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk.

However, Governor pointed out that it was not clear whether any standard approved by ECMA would be compatible with the General Public License, or GPL.

The British Library has also lauded Microsoft's move, saying in a statement that it would help it fulfill its "core responsibility of making our digital collections accessible for generations to come."

So far, Microsoft has refused to support OpenDocument in its software, which Barnett and Taylor believe raises questions about its commitment to open standards.

"The OpenDocument format is a genuinely open format that is managed in a completely transparent way. Any company in this business that is genuine about open standards should be supporting that," Barnett said.

"The existing standard places no restrictions whatsoever on who may implement it, and one has to continue asking the question why Microsoft won't," said Taylor of OpenDocument. "If the Microsoft standard really is genuinely open in the same sense as the OpenDocument format, what advantage is there to Microsoft in trying to impose their standard over the established one?"

Governor suggested that OpenDocument may have an advantage over the Microsoft standard through wider adoption by software makers, but he said this is unlikely to prevent Microsoft Office's Open XML from becoming widespread.

"If we're talking about multiple implementations, OpenDocument has a clear advantage," Governor said. "From a government perspective, the kind of conversations that OpenDocument can have with the public sector will be somewhat more compelling, but Microsoft has shown itself to be very persuasive at selling to the public sector. Also, there are massive advantages in incumbency."

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.


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What is Open? What is Open Enough>
1. What is open and who gets to say?

The market says.

2. What is open enough?

See PDF.

3. What is good enough?

If we are to have fewer web languages, we better be sure we have the right ones.

Spy vs Spy but the ODF guys have a better strategy for the long term.


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for my notes on the XML 2005 Town Hall on document formats. Representatives of Microsoft, Sun and others gathered to discuss this issue. The announcement mentioned in the article above had not yet been made and did not factor into the discussion. As I was the session chair, I vouch for the integrity of the participants. It was as open and honest as lawyers allow, and it raised issues critical to this discussion without degenerating into Spy Vs Spy.

To beat the speed of light, at the right point in the acceleration curve, you cut the mass. With the advent of web 2.0 applications, the need for highly complex desktop components is reduced. It never goes to zero.

This is about procurement and cost control. No one wants to *own* all of the loss leaders. Winning is not owning. MS knows this. So does Google. MS will not want to be left holding all of the loss leaders as Google assumes the web and all of its content is their private WAN.

The open formats debate is not about who owns which components but about the means by which they are aggregated into composite documents with a common event strategy that ensures rendering and behavioral fidelity. Some other specifications have to be completed and implemented successfully (say to the inflection point) before we will know if we have the right standards.
Posted by Len Bullard (454 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"Also, there are massive advantages in incumbency."

To whom?!!
Posted by Eggs Ackley (34 comments )
Reply Link Flag
you retard
the incumbant, obviously.
Posted by mortis9 (370 comments )
Link Flag
History repeats itself?
I remember RTF being an "Open" Standard only to have MS quickly
divert from the documented standard. RTF mostly died and
created enough confusion in its wake (pun intended) that people
became even stronger MS advocates.

Perhaps MS can maintain their marketshare by employing the same
tactics again.
Posted by BillFromPittsburgh (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You can't have an open standard when...
It is propritary. Another bad Microsoft joke.

Posted by Heebee Jeebies (632 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why not OpenDocument?
"So far, Microsoft has refused to support OpenDocument in its software, which Barnett and Taylor believe raises questions about its commitment to open standards. "

That wraps it up nicely I believe. Sometimes you just need to back up something together to make it work. The question is not wether OD is perfect, but is it usable if we everybody has to use it.

I think it could be, but it needs to reach some kind of critical-mass that it never will if MS sticks to it's own formats (semi-open or not) and if we stick to Office.

So it's up to us in the end...
Posted by huddie klein (70 comments )
Reply Link Flag
With reference to the question of Jurisprudence....
... what will the scenario be when a Latin American and Caribbean Standards Organization accepts the OpenDocument Standards (which was agreed by the OASIS Group and is supported in the OpenOffice Productivity Suite) and all Governments in the countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and in most other parts of the world decide to follow suit. What then will be the relevance or the effect of the so-called Microsoft Office Open XML Standards on all of these countries combined as being proposed by that company to the ECMA International, a European standards body!
Posted by Captain_Spock (894 comments )
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Inflection Point
When requests for the support of OpenDoc hit an inflection point (some number of sales), then it is very likely support will be provided from Microsoft. That's just good business.

There are issues here that are not Spy vs Spy. As I blogged, they relate to having a critical mass of users for legacy which must continue to be supported, having features that support high end complex applications, and ensuring that a standard reflects a workable popular solution. In short, Microsoft and others are saying that committees who produce specifications (not standards because in the opinions of some/many, that is a word reserved for market-proven technology, not technology to be developed or new to market), don't always do the best job possible. In other words, mileage varies. So where the consortia may require conformance, they cannot and do not require implementation. Only a customer can do that.

So if you back OpenDoc and you support the values of those who create it, then buy it or download it. If you wish for your State or local agency to require it, lobby for that. Turn the wheel.

But the experience of the XML community with the huge numbers of XML languages emerging has been to pick and choose the right ones, so if you really want as was encouraged at XML 2005, to get a smaller number of XML languages, you have to get the right ones or you standardize mediocrity.

The arguments in Massachusetts are also arguments of sovereignty. I support that position. However, as regards any particular software vendor, it is the vendor's right and fiduciary obligation to pick the right language.

Then the market decides.

Also remember: loss leaders are losses. ANY competent company begins to cut products which don't generate revenue or offer other compelling advantages. That is the nature of competition in a free market. The trouble is, as one attendee noted, it is not yet an open market and that must change. The Massachusetts assertion of sovereignty can also be interpreted as support for that change.
Posted by Len Bullard (454 comments )
Link Flag
Open vs Industry
Open Standards are a very necessary part of the interoperability of products. Just imagine if every provider of electricity had different voltages, plug pins etc.
Industry Standards are designed to lock in customers.
When there are many industry standards in an area of interoperability, or existing industry standards do not cater for the future, or a dominant standard locks out other just as good products, then the industry, often supported by consumers, submit their industry standards to an open standards body for ratification into an open standard, which is then published and managed by that open body. Not all submissions have to be included, as long term robust interoperability is the aim of an open standard.
Anything else is an industry standard for the purpose mentioned above.
Posted by Stomfi (52 comments )
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Just what are Microsoft's standardization goals?...
... for the Office XML-based file format... since the goal of the community according to the The Valoris report "is to 'create the leading international office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide access to all functionality and data through open-component based APIs and an XML-based file format".

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In terms of logical and meaningful support for "standards" according to Cover Pages with the subject title "Patents and Open Standards" which in part states: "This document is about patents and IP licensing terms in the arena of open standards designed for the Internet. By "standards" we mean the de facto and de jure standards and specifications governing protocols and (meta-)markup languages that have come to provide a technological foundation for the Internet  standards which (until now) can be freely implemented without fear that someone will decide to begin levying license fees for their usage (e.g., TCP/IP, HTTP, FTP, TELNET, HTML, XML, P3P, CSS, XSL, SVG). By "open" we do not refer simply to standards produced within a democratic, accessible, and meaningfully "open" standards process; we refer to standards that can be implemented without asking for someone's permission or signing a license agreement which demands royalty payments or places the licensee under onerous obligations. We mean "open" in the sense of implementable within an open source framework, free of legal encumbrance. We mean "open standards" especially in the sense of Internet protocols and (meta-)markup languages that do not represent, nor have the potential to become, private tollbooths on the Internet highways".

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All of the above to be taken in the context of the "subject line"!
Posted by Captain_Spock (894 comments )
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