Choking down OOXML

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (516 Words)

They’re not announcing the results officially until tomorrow, but it appears that enough countries have changed their votes since September 2007 for OOXML to become an ISO standard. Some of the key ‘switchers’ responsible include the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Japan (all from No to Yes) and France (from No to Abstain).

We need document standards to preserve business data over long periods and thus as a core principle it’s a good thing to have an ISO standard used by Microsoft Office, the dominant business office suite  - and for good reason, it’s been a great product over many years. Personally I find the features added to it since around 1997/2000 to be entirely optional in all practical real-world use, so I jumped off the upgrade treadmill some time ago and am quite content with Open Office now for both personal and business use, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Office has always been good. Milked until it’s drier than the Goby desert maybe, but still good 😉

The problem that most (sane & rational) detractors have with OOXML is not that it’s from Microsoft (although that justifiably promotes extra scrutiny from the off, given their track record) - it’s that, as a standard, it’s borderline unimplementable. The whale-crushing 6,000 page spec has proved somewhat inpenetrable to most people outside Microsoft, even with the changes since September. Ambiguity, references to existing Office behaviour, patent concerns (remember, Microsoft’s open specification promise excludes all commercial implementations) all make OOXML something of an encumbered standard at present, and encumbered standards are potentially worse than no standard at all - because they can give an impression of openness without actually delivering on the benefits that it’s supposed to bring; i.e. a lack of vendor lock-in for your critical business data. There is exactly one implementation of OOXML right now - Office - and without a clear, unambiguous, no-nonsense spec there won’t be any others that you can trust either. Which the cynical among us would say is exactly the way Microsoft wants it.

I don’t have anything against OOXML in principle if it’s truly open and genuinely implementable by someone outside Microsoft. Sure the world doesn’t need 2 document standards, but if MS insists on having their own (what’s new, I think ‘Not Invented Here’ must be in their training manual), let them if that standard is truly open. A 6,000 page spec with 1,100 comments still largely unaddressed at the last reading doesn’t seem to fit the bill to me - maybe if more time had been spent hammering those things out I might have felt like it’s respecting the spirit of openness, but this just feels like a wave-through by vested interests to me. Let’s see what happens over the next year or so, but I’m not confident about OOXML doing anything but sowing confusion and doubt in the document interchange arena, all the while being spun by the PR machine as an interchangeable standard. Business as usual then.

This is a good write up of the process so far and why it’s been seriously lacking.