The Joy of OOXML

by Glyn Moody

For most of us, file formats are right up there with printer drivers in terms of fun. Certainly, they're important, but not something you'd look to for excitement. And yet that is precisely what the battle between the OpenDocument Format and Microsoft's OOXML is providing. And I'm not just talking about the dry, intellectual excitement derived from comparing well-formed XML tags: this is a no holds barred, down-and-dirty mano a mano fight over the soul of document standards.

Some of this stuff is downright hilarious. For example, in Portugal neither Sun nor IBM was able to take part in a crucial national meeting to vote on whether OOXML should become an ISO standard; the reason?

The excuse for not letting them in, according to the notes, was that the room only could hold 20 people, and it was first come, first served. But when this was said, there were already more than 20 in the room. It eventually reached 25, so it seems clear there was room for Sun and IBM. There was an auditorium available they chose not to use.

Or try this one:

Previous reports from all over have indicated sudden, surprising surges of membership in National Body voting committees in multiple countries throughout the world (most recently in Sweden), and I have reported recently (here and here) that there has been a sudden surge of interest among ISO members in upgrading their privileges to "P" status, which will entitle to them (just in time) to a more influential vote on OOXML

When I first noted that I had heard concerns over upgrading at the global vote level,. only two nations had upgraded. When I wrote about it the second time, that number had risen to six. It's now only a few days later, and the number has risen to nine (bear in mind that the original number was only thirty). And there are still a few days left during which stealth countries, their votes already taken, can make the cut. Where will it all end? [Updated 8/29: The number is now forty - the most recent addition is Malta.]

None of this will surprise long-term observers of Microsoft: it's simply the way it plays. But irrespective of what you think of the morality of this kind of behaviour, there are number of interesting implications.

The first is that many more people are aware of the importance of file formats being open - something that few cared about a year ago. Microsoft has been unable to counter the line that openness here is good, and so has been forced to take the position that its own 6000-page file format is also open. This shows that Microsoft is having problems countering the openness meme, and has even been forced to play along. Although there is the danger that by doing so it will dilute the value of openness, it is clear from this that openness as a strategy is hard to beat.

The second point is that Microsoft's apparent willingness to use all and every means to get OOXML adopted as an ISO standard conveniently proves that there is no real grassroots desire for this. If there were, it wouldn't need to expend so much time and money on such methods.

These recent moves confirm that those boring old file formats really are interesting, at least in the case of documents (and probably elsewhere). There are various reasons for this, all of them bad news for Microsoft. One, obviously, is the continuing rise of ODF as a viable alternative. Another is the relative indifference of users to OOXML: Microsoft really needs its format to be recognised as an official ISO standard in order to provide Office users with an incentive to upgrade.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - the sudden interest in file formats is an indication that cloud computing is beginning to make its presence felt. There can be no lock-in to particular desktop programs here, because there are no desktop programs (other than the browser, and fortunately Firefox has pretty much won the fight to keep Web standards open). Ultimately, file formats are not just important, they are the only thing that counts.

Glyn Moody writes about openness at opendotdotdot.

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