Microsoft press release about ODF – it’s a start, but quit the FUD

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An Indian colleague just pointed me to a Microsoft press release “Microsoft Expands Document Interoperability: Company to Sponsor Open Source Project for Open XML-ODF File Translation to Deliver More Choice for Government Customers and Their Constituents.” I had heard rumors that something important was going to happen. Maybe it will, but this isn’t it, yet.

In response to the requirements from Massachusetts and others, several groups around the world have been working on plug-ins to make Microsoft Office smart about ODF. As more and more governments require ODF support, this will be one way that it is provided, at least in the short term. Some people may choose alternative software that provides better, more native support for ODF and that is their choice. Open standards are all about choice.

While it starts out well, the press release quickly jumps to the same old arguments that they have been making that have been refuted left and right.

“Open XML and ODF were designed to meet very different customer requirements.”

Well, ODF was designed for people who use spreadsheets, word processors, and presentations. Open XML was designed for people who use Microsoft spreadsheets, word processors and presentations.

“The Open XML formats are unique in their compatibility and fidelity to billions of Office documents, helping protect customers’ intellectual investments.”

There are virtually no documents in existence that use the Open XML formats; any existing binary Office documents will have to be translated to it, warts and all, including every odd subformat that has been tried through the years, successful or not.

One of the arguments around ODF from the beginning was around the long term preservation of customer information. This is one of the reasons why ODF was created. It is still an important reason why momentum around it continues.

“In contrast, ODF focuses on more limited requirements, is architected very differently and is now under review in OASIS subcommittees to fill key gaps such as spreadsheet formulas, macro support and support for accessibility options.”

All right, all right, ODF is under active development by a worldwide community of experts not under the control of a single vendor who are making it state of the art in such areas as accessibility! We admit it!

ODF is architected to make it widely implementable and to easily fit into customer and government workflow. That is, ODF is architected in a modern way to make information more widely usable and to enable broad innovation. Many applications on all sorts of platforms and devices both now and in the future will be able to take advantage of ODF’s clean design to improve customer value. Vive le difference!

Microsoft, to be blunt, join this group to help advance the state of the art instead of just defending your own turf and making these left handed compliments. I’m really very pleased that you are responding to global customer demand for ODF and are publicly admitting that it will play an important role. It’s a good start on your path to first class, native, and default support for ODF. (You don’t get that hug yet, though.)

When that happens, that will be news. Right now you are just duplicating work done by others, but, as I said, if this is really an honest first step to full, enthusiastic support for ODF, then I applaud your action. Do cut the insults about ODF in the process, it sort of dilutes your message.

This action by Microsoft is one in a long series of positive, momentum building events surrounding the OpenDocument Format and open standards in general. In my opinion, it is explicit recognition that open standards are the most important way of enabling software interoperability.

I expect that this will significantly accelerate the adoption of ODF by governments around the world. That is, ODF will be increasingly recognized as the primary, best and unique international open standard for document interchange. This will be cemented into IT policies by more and more IT departments and agencies around the world at a faster rate.

Update: I provide a lot of links to the early stories about this development here.


  1. It will happen. Microsoft will fight long and hard to raise doubt about ODF, but in the long run it would be suicidal for them to let customers try other Office suites, so they will be forced to first support third party Open XML -> ODF solutions and then, eventually, to build in an Open XML -> ODF solution and, probably, to support ODF directly. Their only strategy at this point seems to be to try to delay long enough that some of those billions of documents really are moved over to Open XML, and heaven help them if the transition isn’t as smooth as they have anticipated. After all, it is not uncommon for WordPro to read some older Word documents better than MS Word 2003 can, so the chances of the older Word -> Open XML being seamless is unlikely.

    Anyway, that is my prediction. Eventually, Microsoft will cave, although they will never admit that is what they are doing. They will point back to articles such as this and make it sound like this was their strategy all along. Sigh!

  2. Hate to sound obvious, but I had the thought a short while ago that essentially this whole “standards” matter is about what defines an Office Suite.

    Speaking about “commoditization” is a start, but it’s too easy to think that making the product a commodity is all. It’s actually about who defines software for office use, and how that software is defined.

    ODF defines a plateau of expectations. I expect that’s why it’s still not complete – some areas haven’t been properly defined yet.

    (Speaking as someone fooling around with his own definition of an ideal office suite, this part of the ODF concerning scripting languages interests me. How tightly will it be defined? I’m thinking of the scripting language as one of the universal components of the office suite, instead of being an add-on of dubious value. I need the essentials defined, not the outlying parts – in short, I need it defined a la “The C Programming Language” instead of a JCL-complexity.)

  3. I welcome this change of heart of MS to adopt ODF and kudos to their program managers. Given their track record and knack for “embrace and extend”, we will have to be vigilant with what they would do. I would not be surprised that they will at some stage want to extend the ODF format becaue “it is what customers want”. It is not a likely thing to happen given the number of eyes on the ball.

    It is clear to me that they have been told that their submission of the Open XML to ECMA for adoption and subsequently by ISO is not going to go far because it is not in ISO’s interest to have TWO standards for the same thing. In that sense, OASIS beat MS to the tape and open innovation has prevailed!

    Harish Pillay

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  6. > It’s a good start on your path to first class, native, and default support for ODF. When that happens, that will be news.

    It won’t happen. Or, to be more precise, it’s not on the project roadmap. See for yourself: (only available in .doc format, so not kidding)

    July 6 – prototype. That’s what’s available now. It can convert some basic ODF documents to readonly OpenXML. It does not allow users to export Word documents to ODF.

    October 5 – 0.3M1. First milestone scheduled to have any ODF export at all.

    December 30 – version 1.0. Public release of “add-in” and command line translator. “This release will be the final release of the project.” In other words, that’s as integrated as it’s ever going to get.

    Also note that “December 30, 2006” is suspiciously close to “January 1, 2007”, which is the deadline that Massachusetts has set for migrating to ODF-compatible applications. But I’m sure that’s a coincidence.

  7. Is it Open Standards or Open Source? Which is more important? Which will actually drive the evolution of open technologies faster and direct improvements at a pace that keeps up with market demand?

    Given that the first version of a standard or a product is usually mediocre at best, (RSS vs Atom, XSD vs Relax), shouldn’t the public wait for a better one? Oh, but if they wait, then how does open source or an open standard get that mass approval?

    This is the nut of the open standard or open source problem: in the beginnning, it is mediocre and the way it gets better in a world of very large software firms is it has to pound down the better systems first in the name of the ‘web’, an abstraction of community.

    The single reason one adopts an inferior product is to get a lifecycle advantage of data ownership. It is no guarantee that the product will evolve so it is still a bet that incentivizes fixing the competition to the advantage of the inferior product. In this case, governments have stepped in to fix the game by *asking* Microsoft to support ODF and you are following up with a “let’s keep on kicking MS in the teeth even if they do what we ask” because that is to the advantage of the current vendors of ODF support. Otherwise you’d say “what a smart decision!” and let it go at that.

    Spy Vs Spy, Bob, and a vote for the reach of mediocrity over excellence that has scope. I understand it competitively but don’t dress it up as fashionable virtue. Open source is still product.

    Try a C7add9. More melodic potential. A C7 chains one to the blues or a common practice hymm. Nice for the congregation to sing but not enough for a ripping jazz solo.

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  9. Len,

    To be clear so it doesn’t just look like I’m asking for incremental things (that is give me something and then I ask for more): I would like to see Microsoft offer first class support for ODF rather than treat it like some inferior thing that needs to be kept at arm’s length. That means it has native and fast input and output. That means it has excellent help that tells you what may or not get translated when you go to or from it (for example, when you go from the richest MS Word format to the fully supported RTF you lose stuff – though I didn’t see that mentioned in the press release). I want good support for customers who call up and have problems with documents that may have been in ODF format and not some excuse like “sorry, it’s not our fault, ODF has problems” as the default. I want it dealt with directly rather than through some layer of indirection. When I say I want these things it is as a user of a Microsoft Office product. The announcement did not give me a warm and fuzzy feeling that any of these things will happen.

    Now that said, Microsoft doesn’t have to give me anything because the market will choose the products it wants and ODF support may be a factor. Microsoft could have decided over a year ago to support ODF, but they did not, for their own reasons. People, including myself have questioned some of these reasons, including the ones that were supposed problems with ODF that didn’t quite exist.

    This announcement is a very big victory for ODF because it will practically remove some of the FUD that I have seen first hand around the world. There is a lot that happens and is whispered behind the scenes that this announcement will either make go away or make difficult to support. Of course, there will be new things but we’ll deal with that as it comes.

    By the way, I’m really not sure what version you might call Open XML. There was the XML in Office 2003 but, as far as I know, that has been totally deprecated. Hope nobody bet the farm on that one.

  10. As long as it is understood that even this level of support removes the ‘MS is hijacking the standard’ FUD that usually appears because they chose to do this in an open source forum and sponsor it. That’s pretty good if not everything that a natively supported product would get and of course, their own product will. On the other hand, as use picks up, so should support. I don’t disagree with that. Having support for ODF is a good thing.

    When I was the intermediary at the XML 2006 meeting between MS and supporters of ODF, I was struck by their willingness to support it if they perceived it had a market. I think that when some of their more influential customers made noise, they decided to go ahead, but so far, it is far from clear that it needs more immediate support than what they give it. I believe it will. So I think it is a victory and one has to say, “Thanks” and then wait for the next orbit to push for a bit more. Low energy transfer takes time but it is better than exploding the booster on the pad to save time.

    Think back to 1993: did you think markup would get this far? Lots of little pushes help if they are timed well.

  11. Len,

    It’s definitely an ODF victory, no question about that. I’ve said this before, but I would love it if MS joined the OASIS ODF working group and helped it evolve to what it thinks is necessary to serve its customers. Over time this could involve a refactoring and relayering of the standard, but all this is technically feasible.


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  13. Speaking about Standards and File Formats, I was reading the book “Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution” today, and was brought up short by a reference to OSI. Does anybody remember the Open Systems Interconnection anymore?

    That’s what happens with a standard that is over-specified without a working prototype that’s in common use. TCP/IP was not specified anywhere nearly as completely, and had some other issues, which the curious can investigate by digging up the relevant OSI-standards people’s comments. But for all OSI’s theoretical benefits, it wasn’t in use or fully developed before TCP/IP took over the marketplace – and incidentally sideswiped DECNet, IPX and SNA off the information highway. So sorry.

    Microsoft has tied its XML format to its up-and-coming MS Office 2007. I don’t know if it’s ever going to work properly on earlier versions, let alone the “officially dead” but still high-kicking cancan-ing MS Office 9x – which I’ve legitimately got on at least two computers. MS Office 2007 is at least in the minds of the end-user, tied to MS Windows Vista, owing to Microsoft’s habit of co-releasing its Operating Systems and Office Productivity Suites at the same time. And Vista is in trouble, much much worse trouble than Win2k was, or MS OS/2 2.0 ever was.

    I personally think this is also a safety hatch for Microsoft – if ODF takes off like a bunch of July-the-Fourth rockets and its own XML is a damp squib, and Vista grinds into the market like a Lada in reverse being shunted into place by a bulldozer – they can incorporate this BSD-licensed ODF plugin as is where is into MS Office 2007 and any other MS Office versions they care to, without blinking.

    Technically it’s a mixture of co-option and competition; it’s a brilliant piece of gamesmanship. So I would suggest taking it in that spirit – and seeing where Microsoft is just that little complacent … ;)

  14. True. If ODF is solid for the majority of cases, it lasts. OTOH, it may be the prototype that spawns other more successful variants.

    The danger is making a specification into a standard while the environment is changing rapidly. That is why OSI, HyTime/DSSSL, ODA and lots of other smart efforts died. It is not the complexity of the design; it is the mapping to the requirements factored over the cost. The needs of the customers are almost always less costly than the ambitions of the designers. It may be that mediocre is the best approach to designing for reach over scope. Just don’t bet that every locale is mediocre. There are always those who will spend more for higher quality for local use.

    Tight sweaters suit Lara Croft in any rendition. A moo moo does too. This is not true for you and me. A tie dye looks just as funky on all of us.

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