back to article On the Office format wars

The usual trouble with politics is that the people the process is supposed to defend are usually the ones to suffer most at the hands of those manipulating the political process. It looks as though this is the case in the arm-wrestling that is still going on between Microsoft and IBM and the standardization of OpenMXL and Open …


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  1. Neil Lewis

    OK for the present, but a shame about the lack of foresight

    The author makes a few logical presumptions, then effectively contradicts himself. For example, he states that MS Office is the de facto standard, which is true enough at present, then extends that to mean that OpenXML is the de facto standard, which it is not - not even close. It's only used in the latest version of MS Office, which puts it more or les on a par with ODF for installed business users at present. (That's according to your own survey, guys!) He also makes tha point that there is severe loss of productivity when there are even minor changes to the way MS Office works, so how exactly does he think businesses are reacting to Office 2007 with it's huge changes? That's right, they're increasingly looking to OOo as an alternative, perhaps as much as anything because it's closer to the older MS Office in terms of the interface.

    Now let's look to the future and also to the fundamental reasons for establishing a true open standard for office documents. In truth, while IBM (and Sun, Novell and lots of other companies) are pushing ODF, the reason it's significant is precisely because it's truly open for anyone else to implement. Governments are apparently worried less about relatively small cost savings on software costs and more about having huge volumes of public information archived away which, in fifty years time, no-one will sell a program capable of reading. Only with a true open standard can that be avoided. The lack of true openness in "OpenXML" has been covered ad infinutum elsewhere. Fact is, if you really need an open standard, ODF is it.

  2. Jeremy Hooks

    Software Certification

    When a document format becomes an ISO standard, does that mean the all software which claims to support that standard needs to be certified in order to carry the standard mark?

    If that is the case, then I can't see ISO giving MS a free pass just because they had a large part creating the standard. This could really come back to bite MS.

    Does anyone else remember the problems the final version of Office 2007 had reading documents created in the Office 2007 beta 2 (the final public beta)? An open interchanganble file format that isn't even compatible minor version changes of the same software? Incompatibilities which are so major that they can't be fixed by the company which has access to the source code of both applications?

    It really would be the ultimate irony if OpenXML was granted ISO standard and was certified before MS-Office.

  3. Mark Rendle

    Lack of true openness in OpenXML

    I am intrigued as to why, as an avid reader of various technical sites, I have not seen any of this "ad infinitum" coverage of OpenXML's in-fact-closedness. While I'm at it, I'd be interested to see any statistics showing that businesses are fleeing en masse to in the face of the huge improvements in usability that Microsoft are inflicting on the world with Office 2007.

  4. Rick Stockton

    RTF *is not* portable

    Even if we ignore the basic fact that "Rich Text" is grossly insufficient for modern documents, there is a very basic problem: implementations of RTF are so different from one another that you often find the document unusable in a different application. Try opening a USA-English ".rtf" with ANY formatting information, created by Wordpad, in (or visa-versa). Each displays the other's document as total hash. Other "RTF" word processors, such as K-Office, also result in incompatible files-- the SAME problem we have with "*.doc" MS-Office files.

    The RIGHT way to do get "open formats" is to require ODF. Faced with such a requirement from many customers, MS can easily support this format. Unlike everyone else, constrained by undefined BLOBs and lack of documentation for proprietary elements in so-called "open" OpenXML, Microsoft has unfettered access to the ENTIRE specification of ODF documents, and an unfettered license to *ALL proprietary technology of SUN which is necessary to *IMPLEMENT* ODF.

    The actual implementation of OpenXML, in a manner fully compatible with MS-Office, is IMPOSSIBLE without access to additional Microsoft technology which is NOT available under an open license. "OpenXML" is a sneaky trick.

  5. Victor Szulc


    Agh! Here we go again with the dowy-eyed open-saucers and their evangelizing "open" standards and everything non-microsoft. I guess no article on officesoftware would be complete without their comments.

    The fact is that Office is the defacto standard, and office 2007 will be the new defacto standard in a couple of years, when businesses are done migrating to it. Microsoft will dominate the officespace in the foreseeable future.

    And god bless 'em! Thanks to Microsoft and Office nobody has to worry about the recipient being able to read the document we sent them.

    Most businesses and workers only care about:

    1. Does my software work properly?


    2. Are people able to read what I sent them?

    The only people that care about if a pice of software or a standard is "open" or not, are the paranoid, vengeful, rabid Microsoft-haters: The 2-3 percent of users that insist on Linux being a viable option for the desktop.

  6. Giles Jones Gold badge

    Open formats

    Victor is missing the point, there are already many file formats that are viewable on any computer.

    MP3, PDF, JPEG, MPEG etc...

    What is wrong with creating an open document format to allow for some innovation in the market? Imagine what Adobe, Apple and others will do if they can create an Office suite to compete with Microsoft.

    The monoculture helps nobody.

  7. Marbux

    A fatal flaw in your analysis

    Your analysis contains a fatal flaw, Martin. That is your belief that adequate Microsoft XML <> OpenDocument translators will be available. In fact, all of the translators suck mightily and there is no prospect at all of them being perfected.

    The major problems are: (i) that Microsoft's XML formats seem deliberately designed to thwart their parsing with XPath, which is essential to XML transformations; (ii) that Microsoft's "XML" file formats include binary blobs, bitmasks, and multiple Windows and Microsoft dependendencies, all of which defy XML transformations; and (iii) OpenDocument assumes a richer page layout engine than Microsoft Word provides, so while DOCX can be completely mapped to ODT it is impossible to fully map in the other direction without declaring an MS Office interoperability subset of OpenDocument and ODF applications implementing a compatibility mode with reduced features. (That is more than somewhat ironic, given Microsoft's spin that it couldn't implement all of its features in OpenDocument. In fact, the exact opposite is true.)

    In fact, Steve Ballmer is on record as saying that the developers of the Novell-Microsoft-Clever Age plug-ins will not even attempt to achieve full fidelity file translations between the two formats.,1895,2050848,00.asp?kc=EWEWEMNL103006EP17A

    Those translators achieve at best far less conversion fidelity than existing file conversion filters between OpenDocument and Microsoft binary file formats such as the conversion filters, which achieve only about 80 per cent fidelity. The file format cognescenti know this. See e.g., the paper by Gary Edwards and Sam Hiser included in this edition of the European Journal for the Informatics Professional. (PDF). (Note that I contributed to that paper.)

    And as also detailed in that paper, what works well enough for some of us does not necessarily work well enough for all. Anything less than full fidelity data conversions is absolutely unacceptable in the context of wholly automated business processes and is in fact illegal in various contexts, including government records.

    So your thesis doesn't fly. In fact, I'd go so far as to bet that you have been suckered by the Microsoft spin doctors. Another indication is your depiction of the file format wars as being waged primarily between IBM and Microsoft, a recent theme of Microsoft's public relations machine. While it is seductive to believe that the controversy is just another chapter in the war between major competitors, the pro-ODF camp is far broader than IBM.

    For example, nearly 20 governments recently opposed fast track processing of Microsoft's draft standard at ISO. Do you believe they were all carrying water for IBM? Government bodies in more than 50 nations have chosen to adopt ODF. And dozens of developers now support the OpenDocument standard in their applications.

    While IBM has had a noteworthy role in proliferating the OpenDocument formats, there is a movement without a recognizable leader in the industry. When it comes to vendor influence on things relevant to ODF, Sun Microsystem's far outshines IBM. But in fact, a core group of open standards and free and open source developers and advocates -- inside and outside government -- have played a far larger role. This is a customer-driven phenomenon, not a vendor-driven effort as you portray.

    So I will respectfully suggest that you reexamine your position on these issues. Reasonable minds can differ, but not on the grounds you advocate.

  8. David

    Office2007 - Vista redux

    For crying out loud, Victor! Office-07 is as much of a mess as Vista. Bloated eye candy for the unfortunates who have to slave under its "standards". More, obfuscation and crap than any mere mortal should have to endure. And at a price to bring tears of misery to end users and mirth to Bill. Its not being adopted as quickly as Microsloth would admit (hell, when would they admit anything). I'm all for Google, and they're the only one with the clout, to crucify Microsofts efforts in locking the world further under its lying acronyms.

  9. Brett Brennan

    Now is not the time...

    ...for this argument between OpenXML and ODF to arise. The time for this exchange to occur was back when the ODF standard was being proposed and in review.

    Very simply put, if Microsoft had a reasonable set of extensions that Microsoft felt were needed to provide enhanced functionality to XML, they *SHOULD* have proposed them for inclusion in the initial draft standard. This would provide Microsoft with the extensions required for Office, and maintained a single standard for all users.

    Users don't buy software on the basis of underlying standards, this much is absolutely true. The distinguishing features of the user interface and integration with other applications are the key determinants for acceptance of *ANY* software in the real marketplace.

    Microsoft *WOULD HAVE* continued to dominate the office tools marketplace even with ODF as their standard for document storage. Period. No, make that *WILL* dominate, regardless of the outcome of this standards argument.

    HAVING SAID all the above, Occam's Razor provides some logical insights into the standards battle today:

    Microsoft COMPLETELY FAILED to grasp the importance of XML as a fundamental technology;


    Microsoft RECOGNIZED AN IMPENDING BUSINESS PROBLEM in the sales of Office, either CAUSED by XML or other Microsoft marketing/sales/design/management issues.

    There is also the fundamental difference between a corporation an a standards organization. A BUSINESS exists TO MAKE MONEY for its STAKEHOLDERS. A STANDARDS BODY exists to SAVE MONEY for its STAKEHOLDERS. These goals are usually congruent, especially if the stakeholders are of relatively equal stature in the standards organization, but are often at odds when there is a split among the standards body members about the BUSINESS ADVANTAGE that a particular standard conveys. (See OSF-1 from POSIX as an example of the latter.)

    Microsoft Office is a KEY REVENUE STREAM for Microsoft, and one that has been troubled time and again by inter-interoperability and cost issues. (How many organizations still use Office97 formats as their "standard" for document production due to incompatibilities in newer Office versions?) Microsoft has already publicly discussed sales issues with Office 2007, and Vista has taken far more resources to launch than was anticipated, making the adoption of Office 2007 a competitor for sales, marketing, development and maintenance resources.

    My conclusion is that Microsoft has correctly identified ODF as a threat to its hegemony in the office suite market. It is a threat of the same form as .pdf, another "standard" that caught Microsoft by surprise, driven by the needs of the market rather than the need of Microsoft. (Microsoft still does not provide native support for .pdf files in Windows...isn't that a bit odd these days?)

    Microsoft, in my opinion, feels that ODF threatens the uptake of Office 2007 significantly. Microsoft also recognizes that it made a strategic error in not dealing with XML decisively early on.

    OpenXML is *NOT* and attempt by Microsoft to defeat ODF or XML at this late time; rather, it is simply a "stalking horse" to *DELAY* the uptake of ODF until such a time as Office 2007 is back on track to replace existing Office as the de-facto productivity tool. At that point, I expect Microsoft to jump up and shout "JUST KIDDING!" and "embrace" the "standard".

    Meanwhile, if OpenXML becomes a competitive standard, well, all the better for accelerating the uptake of Office 2007.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    PDF Vs ODF?

    Wasn't there was a total war going over PDF vs ODF? What happened to that?

    As I was under the impression that PDF had a larger presence.

  11. SImon Hobson Bronze badge

    Victor, the point went dattaway - and you missed it !

    Victor Szulc wrote : The fact is that Office is the defacto standard, and office 2007 will be the new defacto standard in a couple of years, when businesses are done migrating to it. Microsoft will dominate the officespace in the foreseeable future.

    And god bless 'em! Thanks to Microsoft and Office nobody has to worry about the recipient being able to read the document we sent them.

    Taking these in reverse order ...

    Have you ever sat in a meeting where you are discussing the budget for a major IT upgrade to replace your "does everything we need and more" hardware and software with a lot of expensive new stuff simply because it's getting a pain handling the number of documents sent in the incompatible formats that change with every new version of anything from Microsoft ? No, thought not ! I have.

    Fact is, the statement ONLY appplies when EVERYONE used the very latest version, which leads on to the first bit ...

    The ONLY reason Office 2007 will become the de-facto standard is that Microsoft have engineered things so that it will quickly become very inconvenient for anyone that doesn't upgrade. For the vast majority it the new version will offer them no new useful features, will offer no performance enhancements (quite the reverse), and will not save money (there will be HUGE cost) - but businesses WILL upgrade simply because of the pain caused by not upgrading (oh yes, and the minor detail of not selling any more licences for the older version).

    I'll point out that Microsoft don't have a monopoly on this approach to enforced upgrades !

    Microsoft can get away with this because they a) have a VERY dominant position and b) have a VERY dominant position. This allows them to change their file formats without having to worry about maintaining any compatibility.

    By using standard file formats, you CAN send a file to anyone and they will be able to read it in whatever software they choose/can afford - instead of only being able to read it if they've shelled out LOTS of cash for your preferred program. Also, by using standard file formats, YOU will be able to read anything sent to you by other people.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No one needs to lose.

    How can you pretend there's more than one bad guy in this story? ODF is patent and royalty free. If Microsoft cared, they would implement it in their own software and let the user choose. All other arguments are spurious. The problem, as usual, is that Microsoft will never accept anything that can be used productively outside of their own platform and control. If Microsoft users suffer as governments run from non free formats, there is only one company to blame.

  13. Glen Turner

    Abuse of standards process

    The article fails to mention that Microsoft's distain for international standards got itself into this mess. A group of document format egghead users and programmers at OASIS spend years developing a workable standard. (BTW, the one of the criteria for that work was that Word and WordPerfect documents could be rendered with full fidelity.) They then submitted it to ISO, the ISO national bodies thought it was good and it was passed.

    Some short time later, some governments concerned about archiving electronic documents decided to require new purchases to use the new international standard. That put Microsoft into a complete tizz -- we saw good people slandered, we saw backroom deals at their worst. But the power of the argument for using an international standard document format is strong, and very appealing to governments.

    So Microsoft decided that it's own new document format needed to become an international standard. ECMA, who have evolved into a shop which can take your propietary format and make it an ISO standard, was called in. There has been a lot of disquite in the international standards field about ECMA's role, and Microsoft's behaviour is a perfect illustration of that concern. The behaviour is seen by most followers of the international standards process as an attempt by a threatened vendor to ride roughshod over a standard developed the way standards are meant to be developed. The international standards process has conciliation mechanisms to deal with this, but Microsoft failed to invoke those as ODF progressed to a ISO standard.

    Why? Probably because Microsoft want OOXML as a standard *as it is*, not an altered compromise format. Which again comes back to Microsoft's distain for international standards.

    OOXML doesn't even use international measurements of date and distance. You think ISO is pleased about proposed ISO standards specified in inches? Or that the leap year calculation is naively wrong?

    There's also a lot of concern about the patent license status of OOXML. No one wants another RAMBUS. That's why OOXML is a much better abbreviation than OpenXML for Office Open XML.

    Portraying this as IBM V Microsoft is wrong. Microsoft have upset way more many people than Big Blue: the good people at OASIS who made sure Word could use ODF; belivers in quality international standards at ISO and its national bodies; governments who want one international standard for archiving documents, not a vendor bun-fight; and lastly that 15% of people who don't use Microsoft's products and wish Microsoft would learn to play nicely with the other children.

    That last group is important. Nothing impresses a national standards body more than a flood of individual letters from real people. You can see Microsoft futilely asking its faithful at various events to please, please write to their national body. To at least make it look like there is some support at the grass roots.

  14. Julian Lawton

    Read only documents

    Victor said

    >And god bless 'em! Thanks to Microsoft and Office nobody has >to worry about the recipient being able to read the document >we sent them.

    >Most businesses and workers only care about:

    >1. Does my software work properly?


    >2. Are people able to read what I sent them?

    One acronym : PDF. It's a far more sensible format for the 90% of documents we send that are read-only than Word - and certainly for archiving. It even renders with full fidelity, regardless of what fonts the user has installed - a major problem if you want to do anything typographically interesting in Word.

    There's also the small fact that the reader is free - so if you're a government organisation preparing documents for use by the public, it's a far more acceptable format, than something that dictates the end user has to install an office suite just to open up a read-only document (which could have been a web-page 90% of the time anyway).

    It's also doesn't imply platform choice - a fair number of domestic users have Macs - and while MS Office is available for OS X, and Open Office available on most OS, it's still a pretty heavy-weight app to run just to read something.

    And it is quite quite wrong for tax-payers money to be used to help reinforce a proprietary monopoly, even if it is businesses wish to do so.

    But then this is exactly the kind of dumb logic that's got us into the mess we're in now.

    And of course, Adobe are also guilty here, in that they got pretty protective of their open standard once MS threatened their dominance of the PDF authoring market.

    Note : this is an entirely separate debate from having an open standard for editable documents, for which I pretty much agree with the article's sentiments.

  15. Dai

    Not nearly radical enough.

    There exists a perfect solution. ASCII.

    If you think about it, we don't really need to apply our own formatting to documents. I would go as far as to say that many spend more time fighting with Word (no, I didn't want you to go in to a numbered list there) than we do actually writing the documents.

    I generally write everything in plain text, then apply the appropriate mark-up at the last possible moment. Indeed, where I have been lucky enough to work alongside a press and publications office I can just send them my plain text, and it makes their applying of the appropriate house style about a million times easier.

    Would you expect your web designer to author all of the text on your website?

    Of course if your document really needs that heading in precisely 14pt bold then you carry on.

    But the sooner the jobs of composition and layout are seperated, the better for most of us.

  16. Brennan Young

    FUD in the save dialog

    I'm quite surprised that nobody ever mentions the ominous and threatening "Are you sure" dialog box that pops up in MS Word if you attempt to save a file in any other format than the one MS is currently pushing. This is one of the most sophisticated pieces of hypnosis I have ever seen in a user interface.

    A message like "Some data may be lost" really pushes the ordinary users' panic button: "Oh God! That means some of MY data! I'd better stick with .DOC instead of .RTF or .HTML" It's FUD in its most crystaline form, and has nothing to do with the machinations of standards bodies, governments, or company policy.

    This particular little cunning trick has been instrumental in keeping end-users locked into the moving-target which is the .DOC format. Note that the dialog pops up even if Word knows you already saved the file as .DOC and have made no changes since. So in that particular case, what's getting lost, exactly?

    Oh, and Victors' idea that .DOC is some kind of holy grail of interoperability is ludicrous. .DOC files open properly in only one app, and that's 'the latest version of MS Word' (whatever that may be).

    And now we can't even be sure to open older .DOC files in newer versions of Word. The MS strategy tax has got them competing with their own legacy. In what way can that possibly make me feel more secure archiving my stuff in .DOC for the long term?

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