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The Open XML Vote (OOXML) and why I hate politics

This is a rant and it is my opinion and does not reflect that of Microsoft or others - It is my Opinion!

From 1992 to 1995 I had to write document converters - I had to pick apart binary file formats and translate them to another format.  It was hard work and I JUST WISHED people would create a largely encompassing standard for documents that was documented so I did not have to do all the work myself.  Role forward to today, Office is still the prominent document format (which is now documented on http://msdn.microsoft.com), but there is a new kid in town that encompass everything that an Office document is and more.  This is the Open XML document format.


People have cried for years that they wanted the Office Document standard to become more than a defacto standard, they wanted it to become a format an open standard.  It was always going to be large, but to cover all the features and functions available in Office, it would have to be.  There is no point in the standard being something different to that used in Office as it would be useless.  Today, something like 600 million people use the Office document standard and Open XML format is growing too with tools existing for previous versions of Office prior to 2007 to make the use of the ECMA standard seamless for users.


So what happens, Microsoft submits their file formats to the standards bodies and while it is accepted by ECMA a HUGE POLITICAL effort is made to stop it becoming an ISO standard.  I don't mind people saying they want more documentation, but the only reason I can think why people want to stop it becoming an ISO standard is because they don't want it to be easier for people to use Office documents - they want it to be hard, to make use of Office harder for developers, not easier.  This means that those who said "make it a standard" really meant "don't use it because it is not a standard and that is the only weapon we have as to why you should not use it".  You may disagree with me, but a while ago I tried to enter the discussion with some very loud opponents to Open XML and the strange thing was that they refuse to post my blog questions onto their blogs.  Why was asking some honest questions seen as so bad that no only were they moderated, but actually never published?  This is where politics came in - they did not want my opinion getting an airing and certainly did not want an open discussion.


Now, lets move through the standards process a bit more - Microsoft is new to the document standard arena, as are other people who work with Microsoft, so this means they are new to the standards bodies.  So they join the standards bodies to voice their needs and opinions and suddenly there is noise that these people shouldn't be there, because they were not there 5 years ago.  Why should they have been there 5 years ago - there was nothing to discuss that impacted them then!  Now, when they arrive, they should behave as new members and make sure they work to ingratiate themselves with the existing members.  I don't know if they did this or not, but it reminds me of the stories I have heard from my wife about her family moving to a new village.  They had to work hard to be accepted and people treated them with some suspicion until they got to know them more.  I don't know how the new partners conducted themselves, but if they felt the sort of frustration I do when trying to engage with non-Open XML evangelists, I suspect it must have been trying.  However, for all I know, they could have just been rude and loud.  I don't know.


One thing that has been bothering me is the fact that the standard is said by some to not be complete - well, most aren't in their 1st pass.  Look of ODF - it doesn't even bother to state what functions are available in the spreadsheet, so every implementation can invent any spreadsheet function they want to make their documents standard compliant, but completely proprietary forcing you to buy one persons package to use it.  It has many other flaws, but that is fine, the standard will get revised over time to fix this.  Why the same grace could not be provided to Open XML is beyond me!


Finally on this, for those who say the standard is too big or complex, well, that is because the offerings from Microsoft Office 2003 / 2007 are many.  Are you saying that functions should be cut to enable a simpler standard?  No, well then, get real!

Where does this leave me - well, I think Microsoft has been damned in the past for not trying to make the Office documents a standard and open to creation, access and updates from non-Microsoft packages and some are trying to damn them now for trying to make the Open XML file format available to others.  The file format is still in the hands of the ECMA body and will evolve from there, but people seem to just want to roadblock Microsoft rather than free developers to make documents better for all users.  This is of course the nature of politics and competition, but I wish people would stop hiding behind the standards committees and just be honest about it.


I have no doubt that the ECMA standard, with even more documentation will become an ISO standard in time and then everyone will wonder why all the fuss to stop it being so.




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Posted Thu, Sep 6 2007 11:21 PM by David Overton


Andrew wrote re: The Open XML Vote (OOXML) and why I hate politics
on Fri, Sep 7 2007 4:19 AM

David, I understand your frustration. You're an expert in these products and you want them to succeed.

But frankly, the euphemistically named "Open XML" was simply not qualified to be an ISO standard. The essential quality of an ISO standard is that it freely allows multiple 100%-compatible implementations of the standard.

OOXML is unqualified for three reasons:

(1) OOXML was way too huge for other people to read and understand, let alone implement: 6000 pages is not going to be implemented by anyone else soon. It's not going to be *read* by anyone else soon!

(2) OOXML was not fully documented, in three ways. First, the XML just wasn't fully documented, second, there were apparent errors in the documentation (not surprising with 6000+ pages, but unacceptable all the same), and third, anonymous binary blobs implementing specific functionality were allowed in the XML.

(3) Microsoft Office 2007 doesn't actually implement OOXML as submitted to ISO. This means anyone who actually managed to overcome (1) and (2) still wouldn't have a product that was 100% compatible with Office 2007.

Again, I sense your frustration, but an ISO standard needs to be *implementable*.

You and I disagree, so how about this. In addition to Microsoft, a couple of companies have promised to implement OOXML... Let's have a look around in a years time and see how many 100%-compatible implementations there are.

I wager it will be a big fat zero... not even Microsoft. :)

David Overton wrote re: The Open XML Vote (OOXML) and why I hate politics
on Fri, Sep 7 2007 7:31 AM


I disagree with you in many way.  You have to remember that the purpose of making it a standard is to enable people to ineroperate.  If you look at most standards there is some form of ambiguity - look at ODF, it does NOT allow 100% implementations - if you are going to hold ISO standards to that bar, perhaps we should remove ODF as a standard.

I'm not an ISO expert, but I will give you some responses

1) Documents are complex - to discount them on size is very silly.  My University project was consider too large by one of the markers and he refused to mark it.  The University found someone else to mark it - it got a 1st.  You have to remember that I used to write these interoperability tools - it is a million times easier to wade through the 6000 pages than it is to guess a file format.

2) I need to check some details here - if there is a need for more documentation or fixing of errors then I 100% agree they need work, however as I have said, the same is also true of ODF, so on the same tack this is also not worth of being an ODF standard.  However, purity is not the requirement - who cares is some things are described with binary if that really is the right thing to do.  As I say, I need to dig a bit deeper here to find out when and why.  Remember, integration is yet, not XML pureness vs XML for 99.99% and documented binary for 0.01%.

3) Microsoft implemented Open XML in their products as was required - as it is going through the standard process changes have been made as required to make the standard more appropriate to more than just Microsoft - until these are finalised you can't expect Microsoft to constantly tweak the file format.  One nice thing is that the standard includes version numbers so being able to deal with this is actually easier than you might suspect. Again, remember that I used to do this for a job.  Then Open XML solution is much better than ANYONE elses documentation.

So, I disagree with you - it surpasses the bar of ODF by a long way, yet is held to a different set of standards and I suspect that once documentation errors are removed, people would be able to create tools that are 99.99% compatible.  Have a look at the history of TCP/IP or HTTP and tell me that that V1 standards are held to a higher bar normally.




lee_evans wrote re: The Open XML Vote (OOXML) and why I hate politics
on Fri, Sep 7 2007 11:29 AM

Hi David,

I'm still on the fence a little on this one. I am involved with various groups amongst which are some who are vehemently situated in both camps and I've heard plenty of arguments - for, against, and at times completely irrelevant.

Whilst for my part at least the jury is still out, this is a well written post which raises some interesting points.


David Overton wrote re: The Open XML Vote (OOXML) and why I hate politics
on Sun, Sep 9 2007 1:25 PM


thanks as always for your candid comments.  I have heard much bull from both sides, but I think it comes down to this:

1) People want to enable interoperability with Microsoft documents

2) MS could just publish it, but be able to change it at a whim, which would mean everyone would have to tow a MS line

3) Standards, IMHO, should never be user to block other standards - look at networks, we have many, many standards - not a problem.  Look at TCP/IP - loads of changes to enable progress in the world.  Now look at poor implementations - how many routers can handle larger packets, even though it is possible in the standard?  Just because something becomes a standard you don't have to use it - it is just another option, so why do people fear a standard happening?  In the network world people have released WiFi products before the standard was completed, in the sure knowledge that further tweaks will need to be made and the standard was ratified with that knowledge that as a standard it will also need further enhancements.

4) Finally, everyone should be held to the same bar - I think every criticism of Open XML could be levelled at ODF, except possibly the size one, but ODF does much less and has many undocumented details, so it would obviously be smaller.

I don't think number 4 is happening and that is what irks me.  Since ODF is so underpowered vs Office, perhaps MS should take ODF, extend it with custom extensions so that all the office features can be accommodated and release that - I suspect that would not be desired either.  Or perhaps we should just scrap a good chunk of what is good in Office so it can just write ODF style files.  personally I go for the lets get Open XML made as a standard - just because it is a standard does not mean people have to use it, they simply get a choice - I like choice personally.

ok, another rant over with - thanks for the comments again - I'd rather understand if I am off base, in one corner, or making sense.



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