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Monday, 09 July 2007 10:55

How open is "open" when Microsoft say it?

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The U.S. state of Massachusetts is considering re-instating approval for internal use of Microsoft Office 2007 after a two-year ban. The draft policy is up for review until July 20.

The issue at the heart of the matter is open vs proprietary file format standards. Microsoft Office 2003, and previous versions, did not have an open file format whereas the current 2007 incarnation of the popular productivity suite provides Office Open XML (OOXML).

The benefits of open file formats are many, not least being the assurance of accessing archived data created using applications that no longer exist as well as being able to open documents created by current-version apps which are not installed on the desktop. A frequent example of the latter is the multitude of Microsoft Works word processing documents which are mailed daily and originate from the myriad of home computer users who have free bundled copies of Works OEM with their new PCs. Yet, they cause untold consternation to hapless office workers who don't understand why they have no success when double-clicking the attachments in their mail client. (Ironically, these are invariably the same office workers who try Microsoft Word's File/Open dialog as the first port of call to opening PDF files.)

Insightful, if cynical, news site The Register believes there's more at play.

In particular, The Register asserts the state of Massachusetts were pushing for Microsoft alternatives such as the well-regarded open-source suite OpenOffice. The move to actively boycott a Microsoft product was previously unheard of and invoked the Redmond giant's lobbying machine to pressure the legislature to change policy.

It'd be too easy to just say the state of Massachusetts is kowtowing to Microsoft. After all, OOXML has been ratified by Ecma and surely this means it is been independently considered a global standard, open to all, and vendor-neutral, right?

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Actually, no. Ecma is not the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). It is not a body of the ISO. According to their own web site, "Ecma is the inventor and main practitioner of the concept of "fast-tracking" of specifications drafted in international standards format through the process in Global Standards Bodies like the ISO." In other words, Ecma will help those wishing to attain ISO accreditation by managing the red tape and bureaucracy and contacts and by pushing through your documents.

The C# language has been submitted to Ecma. C# is Ecma-approved (ECMA TC39/TG2 in fact.) This means any vendor should be able to adopt C#. Yet, does anyone seriously believe anyone other than Microsoft is able to extend the language?

Similarly, OOXML is before Ecma as draft standard TC45. In principle, the world is better with a single document format that works well enough for all vendors and end-users. Yet, there is obviously an agenda at hand which is not considering all vendors as equal.

As evidence, consider that Microsoft has now put their Open Paper Specification (OPS) before Ecma. The clear scope put forth for this standard is to be "fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats" and to "enable the implementation of the Office Open XML Formats." This is quoted from Ecma's TC46 charter.

In other words, Microsoft is deviously using Ecma to ratify as standard a set of document file formats that co-operate with each other but are distinctly Microsoft owned and driven and inter-related - and moreso the standard must align with the product, not the other way around.

Perhaps this may be tolerable if there were no alternatives but it must be understood that the ISO has already approved ODF, the OpenDocument Format, also based on XML. This file format has been standardised and given an ISO number and is backed by heavyweights like IBM. Is there value in having two ISO standards for the same purpose?

Microsoft put forth the argument that OOXML is sufficiently different: ODF is constrained because it needs enhancements to support the detritus accumulated over the different versions of Microsoft Office's evolution - yet OOXML will also need to cater for this. It seems a hollow argument to say an entirely new open specification is required. Given ODF exists, and that PDF is already a de-facto standard for electronic document exchange, one really must question the significance of Ecma-approval and the genuineness of the word "open" in Microsoft's parlance.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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