In this industry there are short term wins and loses, and there are long term wins and losses. A small victory today for something you are championing can be matched with a subsequent setback somewhere else. The opposite is true as well. As we look back on any particular program we can see successes and failures, even if the overall result was positive. The IT world is not always for the faint of heart.
I think there are many reasons why Microsoft’s XML specification for its own Office products, OOXML, will ultimately fail in the marketplace. Many people, including myself, have described how it is monstrously large, not particularly good XML and so not amenable to easy processing by standard XML tools, essentially a dump of Microsoft’s own product requirements and mistakes, and will, in the end, be fully implemented by Microsoft alone. If that’s not enough, it just won’t be one of the three main document formats that people use. Let me explain.
PDF files are all over the place. If you send someone a file and you want them to be able to nicely print it but not modify the original, send them a PDF. Adobe made a very smart move by moving the rest of PDF to AIIM and ISO in January. The open community process should work quite nicely for the further development and adoption of PDF. It’s not going anywhere and should easily stand competition from anything else in its niche.
The OpenDocument Format (ODF) stands on a sound technical and XML foundation, is being openly and actively developed by a community of global experts from many organizations in OASIS, is seeing broad implementation in independent ways from both open and proprietary sources, and is perfectly suited for being used in the next generation of online and hybrid online/offline office applications.
Its adoption rate is growing. Teenagers are using it. Politicians are using it. Some CIOs in Microsoft shops are using it at home when it comes time to spend their own money and technical expertise to pick products for their personal use. The huge and growing base of Open Office users are saving and distributing files in ODF format. The next generation of Lotus Notes, the so called Hanover release, will support it later this year.
We’re seeing top-down official policies on its use. We’re see bottom-up grassroots adoption, and we’re seeing flavors of everything in between. It will be the preeminent open document format for creating fully accessible documents. It’s an ISO standard today. It’s free. It’s open. It’s nobody’s lock-in strategy in a standards disguise. For some reason, people like that.
You know what I think is the biggest threat to acceptance of Microsoft’s new OOXML? It’s Microsoft’s own older binary formats for word processing documents (.doc), spreadsheets (.xls), and presentations (.ppt). These babies are going to be around for years and years and years.
There is a tremendous network effect with these formats since Microsoft has such huge marketshare with its currently installed products. If you send someone a .doc file, you can probably assume they have Word or WordPerfect or Open Office and so can read it. Increasingly I’m seeing email with files sent around in both these old formats and ODF format (that is, two attachments).
The transition we are seeing is from the binary file formats to ODF, with some conversion of older files. Over time, more and more files will just be created using ODF. The adoption of ODF is a true worldwide movement. It’s hard to fight a movement and the standard techniques to do so are pretty obvious.
This is how I think it will play out: PDF will continue to see widespread use, ODF uptake will increase at the expense of the Microsoft binary formats, and OOXML will be odd man out. Sure, we’ll see some people use it until they realize they can’t easily exchange them with others. Microsoft’s big challenge will be to get people to stop using the older binary formats and start using OOXML. This is a major challenge and is by no means certain. Indeed, the situation is confused because in Office 2007 there is even an option to use proprietary binary Excel macros extending OOXML.
As Pogo said: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
For non-editable documents, use PDF. To use the modern XML format that is being adopted globally by individuals and organizations, use ODF. If you must use a Microsoft format, stick to the old binary formats so others can read them. I think OOXML is just too much trouble and I think the market will agree.
Addendum: While it is easy to think that Microsoft wants ISO certification for OOXML because ODF has it, what if that isn’t the real reason at all? If OOXML does manage to become an ISO standard despite all the objections, then presumably it will start getting mandated and the old binary formats will be deprecated. Then people will need to upgrade to the only software that will fully support OOXML, which is Microsoft Office 2007. Clever, if there is any shred of truth in it.
Addendum 2: The longer name for OOXML is “Microsoft Office Open XML” and it is shortened in various ways, including “OpenXML.”