ECMA passage of Open XML was no surprise

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I’m hoping that this is more or less the end of what I write about the ECMA vote last week, but given the thousands of words that have been written on this, I thought I would clear something up.

In reading some of the things about Microsoft getting their XML-ized office format “Open XML” passed in ECMA on Thursday, it struck me that some people may have thought that this was a surprise or a hard fought battle of some form. Those of us in the standards world sometimes forget that others don’t hear about the ongoing inner deliberations or see how one standards organization or industry consortium differs from another.

Let me put it succinctly: it was essentially certain that it would be approved from the instant that ECMA accepted it in 2005.

They had a schedule they had to keep, largely because of the release plan of Microsoft Office, and they also needed to work around ISO’s upcoming schedule. There was no surprise here. I might imagine someone taking umbrage at this statement, but I don’t think it’s really debatable. It’s best to understand the large collection of votes that take place in ECMA over a long period and who is sponsoring what. That’s life.

We voted “no” because we fundamentally believe that this is doing nothing more than “standardizing” Microsoft’s formats for its own products and that’s not how the industry should be behaving in 2006. In ECMA you do get to vote, and we exercised that right. It’s nice that the Microsoft spec is XML, but that alone will not guarantee widespread correct and complete implementation for the many reasons people have laid out.

Make sure you follow how well the Novell and Corel implementations do, incidentally. If they falter, watch out for those who try to blame those companies or open source itself, when the root of the problem may be with the Microsoft Office Open XML spec in the first place. You heard it here first.

Now we all move on. The battle for truly open and non-vendor dictated standards is far from over and is gaining momentum. Assume nothing. Should you favor everyone being able to implement real open standards I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised come one year from now. (I know you can interpret that last sentence in several ways!)

Let me also clear up one last thing, something I more or less said in a comment a little while ago. I would like nothing better to see Microsoft try to provide the best native and well integrated implementation of ODF on the planet. It would represent a real change in the industry regarding community developed and maintained open standards.

From a competitive perspective, that might be an issue for others, but it would offer a lot to their current and potential customers. If they can still maintain their huge marketshare because of superior features, ease of use, speed, and security, and not by using a difficult and gargantuan XML specification to perpetuate data format lock-in and limit other complete implementations, so be it.

Don’t be surprised if this actually comes to pass. They have the capability to do so. They may have done it already, for all I know. Care to speculate?

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  1. Hey, where is everybody. I thought the trolls and astroturfers were hovering over their refresh buttons. Oh wait, it’s Sunday. I guess even big corporations have rules about working on Sunday.

    Thanks for the post Bob. Knowledge trumps passion in this war. And I have all the passion I need.

    I hope this post doesn’t unleash the torrent from the refresh button squatters.

  2. Microsoft doesn’t make anything, they wait for someone else to do it, then they steal….I mean partner….with them.

  3. A reminder that all comments are the responsibility and opinions of the commenter.

  4. I have been following the proces of the formats with a lot of interest.
    What has been very amusing is the different approaches that are used by Microsoft and the ODF camp.
    It even is still visible in this article
    I quote: “it was essentially certain that it would be approved from the instant that ECMA accepted it in 2005.”
    This is essentially a completly true conclusion but isn’t that just exactly the same for ODF.
    Did anyone really expect that OASIS would not ratify ODF as a standard ? Did anyone expect ISO not to fasttrack the Oasis ODF standard without any troubles ? Some things are certain from the start because consensus is already reached at the beginning.

    For an onlooker like me it the Ecma standardization was never about whether the format would be standardized or not. I just took that for a matter of fact from the start. I looked at what the Ecma standardization has done for the format.

    And I must say that in that way Office Open XML standardisation can be seen as a big success. Don’t get me wrong. OOXML is not without it’s flaws and the features to support some older Office document formats can in some cases even be considered ugly. But still the result overall is a success.

    Why do I think it is a success.
    I think the format does very well what it is main goals. Provide for competability with the MS Office functionality and the possibility to convert older formats to this new format. Ecma has created an Open format that also shouts continuity to me. Organisations like continuity and stability.
    Also I think the format is improved tremendouly over the period of a year from internal MS odcumentation to a well layed-out set of specs which also provide a lot of examples which makes reading an understanding the specs a lot easier.
    A last thing I want to mention is the of the spec by others. The ecma standardization has really added to the spec in such a way that for 3rd party users is is much more clear how to implement the specs or parts of the spec and how to even extend on the specs as to make it useable in 3rd party software. This were important additions to a spec that basically was not open before and was only really used internally within MS.

    As with most formats and standards I still see that each specs has a long way to go still but I unlike some others do not see it as a battle but as a proces of growth and improvement. I have no stake in the format and no ideals to see satisfied within them. I just hope that both formats will get better in the future.


  5. No, I don’t buy that at all. The ODF process started in 2002 and proceeded at its own pace. When it was ready, it went to ISO and then went through at the normal schedule. Microsoft Office Open XML was rushed through the ECMA initial process and then dictated by Microsoft with a few minor things contributed by others. Name me one other 6000 page spec that was done in a year. The OOXML schedule was dictated by Microsoft’s product schedule. The ISO process for that will be driven by fear that governments will adopt ODF. Let’s get get real, please.

    The attempt to equate the ECMA process for Open XML specifically and what is a community driven open standard is just not right. They may be different things, but the OOXML process will only serve to “standardize” a proprietary product and its format. No amount of sugar coating will change what happened here nor the motivations behind them.

  6. If ODF was truly a community driven format then it would not have been created with in a subcommittee from OASIS ran by Sun which in the initial founding document already stated that it would use the OOo/staroffice format.

    I think OOo became the token format for OSS and for open format only later but at that time the format wat already way beyond a possible format for Microsoft Office.

    For Microsoft to have ever been able to consider using ODF they would have needed the chance to add to the goals for the format and contribute to the initial starting format.

    (I do not think they would not have done that possibly)

  7. That’s ridiculous, you’ve been drinking the koolaid and you are not up to how standards are created. Almost all standards these days are created by someone having one or more documents in hand when the effort starts. That is not unusual and it speeds things up. The difference is that ODF actually did change and mature over the years from 2002 and had significant contributions by people other than Sun. The XML Schema effort started with 5 initial documents and then the group worked on all of them to come up with something else (whatever you think of the result). There was no provision that it had to stay compatible with what a vendor provided, which is something Microsoft dictated. Nobody can look at the size of the spec (huge), the amount of time it was in ECMA (short), the degree of openness of the proceedings (not), and claim that OOXML is open.

    I think we’ve gone around on this enough, and thanks to all for your comments. Since the ECMA decision is rapidly becoming old news, I’m going to close down comments on this thread. I’m sure we’ll have more than enough other places to have further discussion on the important issue of real openness vs what we ended up with in OOXML.

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