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Thread: Internet Standards & Competition

Author Image Gerry Patterson. The world's most humble blogger
Another victory such as this and surely all is lost -- King Pyrrhus of Epirus.

The Other Format War - ODF vs OOXML - Maybe It Is Serious After-all

Chronogical Blog Entries:

Date: Wed, 30 Jan 2008 17:59:11 +1100

The question of OOXML has been around for quite a while now. When I first heard of it I assumed it was just another example of Microsoft trying to dilute and/or subvert an established Open Standard.

Microsoft has always had a culture of paranoia. This goes back to the clever and devious way that they wrested the PC market from IBM last century. Since then they have been wary of being duped in a similar manner. In this paranoid world view, the money being spent by Sun (and to a lesser extent IBM) on ODF is not done for altruistic reasons. It is nothing more than a tool employed by Microsoft's rivals to eat away at the rivers of gold that the MS Office Suite and Windows Operating Systems represent. Continuing in this paranoid view it easy for them to imagine that the Open Source community is being used to leverage the money contributed by their rivals. Perhaps this is why in a recent branch stacking fiasco in Portugal, IBM and Sun were excluded from meetings of the Technical Committee when it was time to vote on OOXML.

To some extent this may explain the support for OOXML. However, the story has stayed simmering away on the back-burner for over a year, now. And it seems that Microsoft are determined to plough a lot of money and effort into getting it working. As mentioned above this includes the time-honoured (at least in Australian political circles) technique of Branch Stacking in order to rig the vote in favour of OOXML. It also includes a considerable amount of effort in preparing documentation and publicity, as well as engineering Office 2007 to support the format. Most surprising of all is I see, from some mailing lists, that Microsoft have initiated dialogue with the Open Source Community. All of which makes me wonder if perhaps there is more to this than just an attempt to sabotage ODF (Open Document Format) with the usual dirty tricks of co-option and corruption.

Granted that when you have as much money as Microsoft, the expenditure may not be that considerable, relative to the overall budget. In which case, perhaps Microsoft was prepared to spend a little pocket money on reversing the Massachusetts decision. Nevertheless, the amount of effort makes me think that Microsoft really do want OOXML to be adopted as a standard.

The success of Firefox has guaranteed that for the time being browser technology will continue to be an Open Standard. In it's own small way Safari has contributed to this. On the other hand the slow steady growth of Open Office and the equally slow but steady growth of concern about proprietary standards and long term data integrity of data stored in proprietary standards may be about to deliver another success story.

Add to this the slow uptake of Vista by corporate and government purchasers and there may be hint of desperation, perhaps even a little bit of fear in Microsoft's response to ODF?

The OpenOffice website claims to have distributed a hundred million copies, as well as capturing between 5 and 20 percent of the market. The variation in these figures is so large because it is difficult to estimate. OpenOffice cite various surveys by third parties. On the other hand many Microsoft retailers claim a market share greater than ninety percent, with some claiming as much as ninety-seven percent.

It doesn't seem possible to get the true facts about sales figures for Office 2007. Any figures are somewhat muddied by the fact that new Vista systems often ship with Office 2007. If Office 2007 is such a raging success and MS Office really does have 97% of the market, why bother trying to get OOXML adopted as an ISO standard?

On the other hand, if MS Office 2007 has not been as successful as Microsoft had hoped, the standard double backwards compatible maneuver that has performed so well for them in the past, may have back-fired. This time they may be hoisted to their own petard.

Is it possible that Microsoft have their own data which indicates that OpenOffice is beginning to make some serious gains? In which case, if they factored in the concerns starting to percolate up from local government and other organisations about long term support for data in proprietary formats (particularly with regard to data archiving), Then they might have concluded that ODF will soon start to bite deeply into those precious rivers of gold.

At least that might explain why Microsoft continues to devote time and energy to the OOXML ISO project.

And so what is the difference between ODF and OOXML? Well for those of you who don't know already, ODF is an Open XML interchangeable format that evolved from the the one proposed early this century after Sun released the source code for their StarOffice suite. Interested parties were invited to comment and suggest modification to the specification during the development phase. ODF was tailored to suit the needs of the developers and the end users who responded. OOXML, on the other hand, was presented to the public by Microsoft at the end of 2006, mainly as a response to ODF. Interested (and disinterested) parties were invited to accept it. It was tailored to suit the strategic corporate goals of Microsoft, who did not ask for or accept input from other parties during the development phase. Various standards committees now have been pres-ganged into the drive to accept it (or reject it?).

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