MS-OOXML: A format without a future?

Is Microsoft's Office Open XML a functional standard, and if not, why is it being rushed through the process?

Microsoft's problems with OOXML just won't go away. MS-OOXML was supposed to supplant the Open Document Format (ODF), but is becoming an embarrassment. As a format it betrays its hurried origins, and is over-complex. At best, it has technical problems. At worst, it is barely fit for purpose.

Questions are being asked in Europe about the way that Microsoft went about the standardisation process. At least four countries have succeeded in having their objections raised to the fast-tracking of OOXML through the International Standards Organisation (ISO), and as a consequence, the ISO has put the standard on hold, at least for the time being.

Microsoft has no date for implementing OOXML on its own platform, but has agreed to implement the rival ODF format on Microsoft Office. Microsoft has given its blessings to ODF by joining the OASIS committees, and to cap it all, a senior Microsoft spokesman has conceded that "ODF has clearly won".

Clearly, there is a pressing need for an open standard for document formats. Documents that can be shared across platforms, across products, and across time. The solution to the problem is ODF, which was created by a technical committee of the OASIS industry consortium and has benefited from industry wide participation in its development. ODF gained acceptance as an ISO standard in May 2006.

The promise of an open standard is that it opens the market to competition. More importantly for the end user it is future proof and offers accessibility. No longer will it be necessary to have the latest version of the latest software from the biggest vendor on the latest upgraded computer to read the latest document from your latest customer, and in the future there will be some chance of recovering the document you saved some years ago with whatever office application you choose to use.

Microsoft opts out

In the beginning, despite invitations to join the OASIS ODF specification committees, which included all the other leading office software vendors, Microsoft opted out of the standardisation process. Presumably the assumption was that if the market leader ignored the format it would go away, or conversely, if ODF was given credibility by Microsoft's participation it would open the market to competition and be an unacceptable threat to Microsoft's grip on the market. Either way, Microsoft stood aside.

Microsoft's position was that its own proprietary formats were the "de facto" standard, and as such, others would just have to live with things the way they were, or fade away. Part of the problem for the competition, of course, is that Microsoft's "de facto" Office formats are not publicly available. Moreover, producers of competitive products have no chance of producing "in time" translators of Microsoft's latest format changes. Competitors are excluded, and interoperability is a one way journey.

Everything changed when the State of Massachusetts chose ODF as the format for its future documents. Eric Kriss, Secretary of Administration and Finance in Massachusetts, was reported as saying: "It is an overriding imperative of the American democratic system that we cannot have our public documents locked up in some kind of proprietary format, perhaps unreadable in the future, or subject to a proprietary system license that restricts access."

Other state and national governments began to make similar demands, and MS-OOXML, confusingly titled Office Open XML, was Microsoft's response.

Stopping ODF

The ostensible reason for the subsequent fast-tracking of MS-OOXML as an ISO standard was that ODF was inadequate to Microsoft's purposes. Critics suggest that the real reason was to stop ODF and standardisation in its tracks. OOXML will undoubtedly defeat the appeals process and achieve full ratification as an ISO standard, but fails to satisfy the remit that governments require of an open standard. In a sensible world a standard cuts across political and proprietary concerns, is independent, fit for purpose, and open.

OOXML satisfies none of these requirements. There is no current implementation of the OOXML format as approved by ISO, and Microsoft has admitted that it will not support the ISO specification until the release of the next version of Office, which has not yet been given a release date. Despite, or because of, the fast tracking of MS-OOXML through the ISO ratification procedure, the specification, as it was presented to the ISO, is incomplete, as has been well documented by Rob Weir and others.