Microsoft's Office Open XML and the ISO "standardization" process.

People who frequent sites such as Groklaw and other technology law or technology related sites may have seen the ongoing discussions about Microsoft's Office Open XML and the current ISO "standardization" process. While there are sites like NoOOXML which detail many of the technical and legal problems with this file format specification, I wanted to offer my thoughts of the overall politics of surrounding this proposal.

Microsoft has over the years managed to create a monopoly with their document file formats. In order to render a document on the screen or on paper you need both the data stored in a file format as well as the logic embedded in the software that renders the file. The logic with Microsoft Office files have been a closely guarded secret, effectively guaranteeing that if someone wants to render a Microsoft Office file exactly as it was saved they need to use the right version of Microsoft Office to do so.

Many organizations, including governments globally, realized that this was a long-term problem. Not only are documents not compatible with competing software, but often older documents are not compatible with newer office productivity software that has changed the secretive logic in some way.

Sun donated their XML file format to OASIS as a standard, and OASIS then submitted this to ISO and had this ratified at that level. This was understood as a great move forward for governments who could then move away from legacy vendor-dependant storage formats. This format documented not only the storage format but the logic that should be used to interpret the file format in a way that allowed anyone to create and interpret these files accurately.

While this is good for everyone else, this is bad for Microsoft's vendor lock-in. Their answer was to try to create a competing file format which would retain the historical vendor lock in. Microsoft and their partners also actively lobbied against governments that tried to honour their traditional respect for vendor-neutral standards and mandate that governments move away from proprietary office productivity file formats to this new vendor-neutral open ISO OpenDocument standard.

The key to their strategy is the fact that any migration of existing documents without intimate knowledge of (and effective replication of) all the logic embedded within the proprietary Microsoft software would necessarily be lossy (IE: the conversion could never be perfect). Microsoft started to push the mantra that only a file format that they devised could retain document fidelity.

If Microsoft was being honest and trying to be helpful in this process they would have fully and publicly documented the legacy file formats, as well as rendering any software patents harmless through a royalty-free (RF) license, allowing more lossless interpretation by alternative office suits and content management systems.

Microsoft's anti-solution was to come up with a way to take existing legacy files and -- without actual conversion -- embed them within a new XML wrapper. This allegedly makes the file format more transparent (an idea that is itself debatable), but does nothing to document the currently proprietary logic needed to accurately render this file. Microsoft retains patent and other related rights to the logic required to render these legacy files, while distracting people by claiming that their new file format has a patent promise.

This technique hides for most politicians and bureaucrats the fact that this "new" file format isn't new at all, is no less proprietary than the binary file formats of the past, and doesn't solve any of the problems with third party applications interpreting the legacy file format whether wrapped in OOXML or directly saved as a .DOC, .PPT, .XLS or related filenames.

Microsoft is trying to stack standards bodies with Microsoft partners, and to use various political techniques to confuse bureaucrats about the nature of this format. They are unfortunately being quite successful, being able to buy the votes from some countries including new entrants into the voting "P" category of the ISO standards body. We need to ensure that we do everything we can to ensure our country representatives are informed on this issue, and to ensure that whether this proprietary file format is ratified as an "ISO Standard" or not that the domestic and ISO standardization processes are modernized to disallow this type of corruption.

In Canada the body that will be deciding how Canada will vote at ISO is the Standards Council of Canada. In May they sent out a call for comments and received largely opposition to this proposal. Unfortunately Canada has a history of simply voting the same as the USA which has decided to vote "yes" for this proposal.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Canada voted "no" !

I was pleasantly surprised to read at Groklaw that Canada actually voted "no".