Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Something the world didn’t need

Another ISO document format standard.

There already is an ISO document format standard – it’s called ODF. But Microsoft refused to work with ODF and has insisted that its own format be made a standard as well. New Zealand, I am delighted to say, voted against this, correctly noting that having more than one standard increases everybody’s costs. Unfortunately it has passed anyway.

To people who say: there should be competition in standards, let the market sort it out – I say “rubbish”. There should be competition in software, but if that software doesn’t implement common standards there’s no real competition. Refusing to implement common standards is anit-competitive. Letting the market sort out standards means the poor old consumer gets it in the neck. Did you buy an HD DVD player? That standard has just lost in the marketplace and your investment is wasted. And with the size of the market in word processors and spreadsheets – we all use them, after all – imposing additional costs there is a drag on the whole developed world’s economy.

Getting this spurious standard approved was ugly. Have a look at Herald journalist Adam Gifford’s take on the whole thing. And while you are thinking about it, check out the British government’s advice to schools on the matter. Both are worth a read.

posted by colin at 1:50 pm  


  1. I agree with you, Colin. I can’t think of anything to say other than that this is an appalling decision.

    Comment by Peter Lynch — 17 April 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  2. Hi Colin, it’s really interesting that you deleted my comment, but you haven’t corrected your post. Did you not like what I said?


    Comment by Anon — 18 April 2008 @ 9:21 pm

  3. ps. I couldn’t help noticing the rich irony that you say you are for an open internet but then you censor your own blog. :-)

    Comment by Anon — 18 April 2008 @ 9:46 pm

  4. Dear Anon

    I certainly have not censored my blog, as a moment’s reflection should tell you – if I had deleted your post I would hardly have let your next one through, would I? Please think before you accuse people.

    I use a spam filter for my blog comments, which is an unfortunate necessity since otherwise adverts for dubious products would outnumber relevant comments by many times to one. The filter looks at many factors in deciding what to pass; it’s normally pretty accurate. I expect that leaving an email address at a fictitious domain, as you have now done three times, is a common indicator of spam.


    Comment by colin — 18 April 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  5. Here is the anonymous comment on this post which triggered my spam filter.

    [start quote]

    Hi there Colin, you say that Microsoft refused to work with ODF. That doesn’t seem to be correct so I’m curious what makes you say that? Microsoft started development of XML file formats before Sun, and it’s on record that ODF refused to work with Microsoft.

    Here’s a quote from one of the main people who worked on developing ODF at the time.

    There is no possible way anyone can claim that today’s OASIS ODF TC would welcome Microsoft and make accomodating changes to the specification! No way! And the proof of this hostility can be seen in the actual disussions and rejections of Micrsoft specific interoperability proposals.

    As for multiple standards, perhaps it’s not ideal but the fact is it’s so common it really doesn’t make sense to make such a meal of it just for this one case. And if like The Highlander there can be only one, how should ISO choose? Should ODF win because it was pushed through ISO faster despite critical flaws such as not having spreadsheet formulas? That doesn’t seem smart.

    Reading a website like the NoOOXML site you linked to makes me really concerned what has happened to integrity. It seems that just about any gossip or rumour is treated as fact even when it’s been clearly refuted. Some of the claims there are simply laughable, like taking Rob Weir’s graph seriously.

    The FUD against Open XML seems like that old principle that if you throw enough mud, you can count on enough people being lazy checking facts so that some of it will stick. At first I got quite concerned but when I started checking for facts to support what the anti-Open XML crowd was saying I found very little that held water.


    [end quote]

    Comment by colin — 19 April 2008 @ 11:56 am

  6. In response to the anonymous comment above:

    It is a fact that MS has not installed usable ODF support – support for the ISO standard for document formats – into its Office software. Read the British government report cited in my post for chapter and verse. The British government reported Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading (like our Commerce Commission) over this.

    Multiple standards for the same thing work against consumers and against innovation in general. You can say that’s an assertion of mine – although the example I have shown about format wars for DVDs, and the older one about Betamax and VHS are compelling evidence. But instead of listening to me, listen to Vint Cerf. He invented the Internet.

    If OOXML is adopted, it leads to a problem of duplicate formats for document exchange. That duplication is bad for interoperability. In the Internet world standards-makers work hard on agreeing one way to do things, and then evolving it – We don’t reinvent the wheel.

    The rest of the points in the anonymous comment are ad hominem and not worthy of a reply.

    If you are still reading this thread and don’t know where you stand on this one – just consider who is arguing the points I have been making. Vint Cerf. The British Government. And the EU, which has fined Microsoft huge sums for anti-competitive practices and has now launched an investigation into the process that led to OOXML achieving its “yes” vote.

    Comment by colin — 19 April 2008 @ 11:56 am

  7. Hello anon. Do some research. OASIS have a long standing invitation to MS to join the ODF. MS has consistently refused. They have also refused the request of their customers to put support for ODF into their product.

    If they are really worried about what one person (whose view did not prevail) says then they would not have bothered pushing OOXML, because 1000’s of people think it is rubbish. Somehow I think MS a rather more thick skinned then Brian Jones lets on.

    Comment by Don Christie — 19 April 2008 @ 7:47 pm

  8. And so, anon, you continue the spreading of confusion here. There is no such thing as the “Open XML” you refer to in your post. There is “ISO/IEC 26300” otherwise referred to as Open Document Format, and there is “ISO/IEC 29500” otherwise referred to as Office Open XML.

    Comment by Peter Lynch — 19 April 2008 @ 8:26 pm

  9. NOTE FROM COLIN – this is another comment from Anon which has been held up in the spam trap. Here it is.

    Colin, thank you for restoring my comment. My comment seemed to apepar on your blog for a while and disappeared later. Most spam filters don’t work that way so I thought you had deleted my comment. I apologise if I was wrong.

    You didn’t answer the clear evidence that it wasn’t realistic for Microsoft to use ODF because of lack of a time machine.

    It seems that Microsoft has done at least as much to support interoperability between Office Open XML and ODF as anyone else, including development of an ODF to Office Open XML translator and plugin for Microsoft Office which is open source and has been adopted by a number of other projects already like OpenOffice support for Office Open XML. As Brian Jones has said it will also be well supported in Microsoft Office.

    Last month we announced that we would update the Office product so that the ODF translators could natively plug into Office and give people the same options they get from the other file formats. People will be able to set ODF as the default format in Office if that’s what they want by simply installing the translators and then changing their settings.

    This seems to address the concerns Becta mentioned in the report other than having more than one standard.

    It’s also a fact that Becta is one agency, your saying they are or represent the British Government does not follow, it’s like saying New Zealand is the World. Saying that Becta is the British Government exaggerates the authority of the report. I read through the sections of the report relating to ODF and there appeared to be a preference for ODF from the outset. No clear reasons are provided for that. Several times alternative views were answered with disagreement but no reasoning or factual support. I personally didn’t feel that the Becta report added anything of substance to the debate so it seems to me you are appealing to the “authority” behind this report rather than any insight it contains.

    Vint Cerf is a senior Google employee and can only be expected to support Google’s position against Office Open XML. Jason Matusow ads some interesting context to his statements.

    Vint Cerf is quoted talking about how there should be just one document format standard. This is the Google company line as I spoke about in my last blog posting. This is a very strange position for the man whose incredibly influential work on TCP/IP was successful as an industry standard due to market adoption AFTER despite the fact that an ISO standard (OSI) was ratified at the international level. So in other words, I think he is asserting that competitive standards back then were good for the marketplace, but that it is different now.

    You didn’t answer my question about which standard to choose if there can be only one.

    It’s also a bit strange that this new rule that there can be only one standard should suddenly come into existence just for Office Open XML. Will you be advocating this rule to prevent UOF from becoming an ISO standard in the future?

    Your last paragraph seems to be using that appeal to authority again, rather than reasoned discussion or facts. The authority you’ve called on is a Microsoft competitor (Google) and a single agency (Becta, which I think does not represent the entire British Government).

    You also imply the EU is opposed to Office Open XML. The EC are investigating a complaint does not indicate opposition to Office Open XML. It’s their job to investigate complaints so it’s no surprise they are investigating a complaint.

    Actually the EU or part of it asked for Office Open XML to be standardised and no countries in Europe ended up voting against standardisation of Office Open XML. This sounds more like EU support for Office Open XML than opposition.

    If you’re still reading this thread and don’t know where to stand, I encourage you to try to read both perspectives and don’t forget the ones provided here and then make your own decision.

    In my original comment, I don’t think I’ve made any personal or ad hominem attacks and certainly didn’t intend to. I was calling into question the validity of basing arguments on a web page that appears to be largely filled with unsubstantiated rumours and provides only one side of arguments that have been solidly answered. I did express regret that a lot of people don’t seem to check facts, I apologise for any offence caused.

    Your claims about Microsoft refusing to provide ODF support for Microsoft Office are incorrect, please see my comments above.

    There’s also considerable doubt that the supposed “invitation” to join in developing ODF could have resulted in an acceptable document formant for Microsoft Office. If you read Gary Edwards comments you can see that what I quoted in my previous comment is part of a direct response about those supposed invitations. Here’s another interesting quote from him.

    The current membership of the OASIS ODF TC is clearly and unequivocably on record as opposed to the interoperability the marketplace is screaming for. The issues of “compatibility, interoperability, and convergence”, as described above have been called by current TC members: “out of bounds”, “out of scope”, “not our problem”, “let the converters and transformers deal with it”, and “talk to Microsoft”.

    Gary’s statements seem very convincing to me, and when the OASIS ODF TC is well known to be dominated by two Microsoft competitors who have both made their opposition to Office Open XML abundantly clear, I think maybe it was a matter of not wanting to bang a head against a brick wall than a matter of thick skin. You may also find the following comment on the blog I linked to in my original comment interesting.

    Futher more the charter of the TC appended to the open call for participating within OASIS (which seems the only formal invitation to I can find) already states it will use sun’s office format as a basis and already list a set of proposed members for the TC with Sun already taking control before the start. If interoperability was of any importance then I would think such a committee would invite MS to participate before choosing it’s competitors format and not the other way around.

    Sure Microsoft was invited to help standardise a file format that had been developed overthe previous 2 or 3 years by Sun for Sun’s product, but is it realistic to expect them to abandon 4+ years of work on their own format in exchange for this dubious honour?

    I did not mean to offend anyone and was not aware there could be confusion. I’ve tried to use Office Open XML even though it takes up more space, I hope this is satisfactory.


    Comment by Anon — 19 April 2008 @ 11:22 pm

  10. You didn’t answer the clear evidence that it wasn’t realistic for Microsoft to use ODF because of lack of a time machine.

    Eh? Anon, what don’t you understand about changing code for applications you own? MSOffice supports 3rd party file formats as do other Office products such as This support does not have to be built in from the get go.

    No need for a time machine, just a decent coder or two. I presume MS still has those, although I am beginning to wonder whether legal and marketing don’t dominate.

    In fact, during a spreadsheet demonstration by Gray Knowlton (MSOffice Product Manager) here in New Zealand it became clear that MSOffice had moved *away* from ODF structures. Office 2003 was compatible with the features we were discussing but the latest version was not.

    How bizarre is that for a company now spending a considerable amount of time and effort convincing us that all they want to do is interop nicely with ODF?

    By the way, this will be my last response until you use a real name.

    Comment by Don Christie — 22 April 2008 @ 1:52 pm

  11. Don, it seems you didn’t read what I wrote.

    The comment about the time machine related to OASIS, not Microsoft Office support of ODF. When Microsoft started developing XML file formats, OpenOffice didn’t exist yet.

    There are more than a decent coder or two already working on Microsoft Office support for ODF. A plug in for ODF in Microsoft Office already exists. I mentioned that above but you seem to have missed it.

    I haven’t noticed any features dropped from Office 2007, would you care to mention what they are?

    Comment by Anon — 24 April 2008 @ 11:11 pm

  12. Personally, Colin, Don, et al. I think Anon is actually a Microsoft employee trying to resolve his/her cognitive dissonance in a public forum. S/He appears to be struggling with the fact that s/he works for an unethical corporation which values maintaining its monopoly over technical merit and any other objective measures of quality that smart, technical, ethical people (like most engineers) value. The arguments being trotted out seem rote, and strangely questioning rather than authoritative… like uncertainty is starting to seep in… It’s like watching a fledgling conscience being born. I think it’s sorta cute.

    Eventually, Anon, perhaps through aversion therapy (like what you’re receiving on this site from all the commenters who have the integrity to provide their names and stand by their words), you’ll come to terms with the fact that you’ve swallowed a line of utter bullshit – because not doing so would’ve forced you to confront the fact that you’ve wasted sooo much time and energy backing an unworthy institution. It’s hard to lose face, but the sooner you realise that you’re fighting for the wrong side, the sooner the recovery can start.

    Best of luck,


    Comment by Dave Lane — 30 April 2008 @ 12:32 am

  13. Dave, a fraught theory indeed, but if you, Colin and Don have some evidence to support the theories you present, why not bring that evidence out in the open?

    You are quite right that I am testing ideas. I always do that, I think it’s an important part of having an open mind. Surely, you are also willing to test ideas?

    But far from being “therapy”, what I’ve seen so far leaves me wondering just how much of the hysteria against Microsoft is based on ignorance, gossip and FUD.

    Too often the argument descends to ad hominem attacks, which regrettably seems to be where you are directing this conversation.

    Meanwhile, I am still left waiting for the evidence.

    Comment by Anon — 1 May 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  14. PS. In case you missed it, it seems that OpenOffice does not conform to ODF.

    This despite Sun having had plenty of time to fix this, and despite ODF being based on OpenOffice.

    It will be interesting to see how many of those anti-OOXML sites who have been trumpeting that Office 2007 does not conform to the very recent changes made to Office Open XML (duh, obviously!) will now give at least equal coverage to what seems much more concerning news.

    Comment by Anon — 1 May 2008 @ 9:52 pm

  15. All I can say, Anon, is this: Microsoft have missed a great opportunity to stick it to the open source world by properly implementing ODF first… But instead they chose to piss OOXML in the pool.

    I’m fascinated by your desire to vindicate Microsoft in the eyes of the community. It’s way too late for that. As for format compliance, saying “but look – they’re doing it too!” doesn’t make it all right and it sounds a lot like schoolyard politics.

    I wonder which application will produce files conforming to its chosen ISO format first? I don’t have any special love for – I do, however, understand the motivation of open source developers to build software with a goal of true interoperability. I have no such confidence in Microsoft.

    As for credibility, Anon, you’ll only have some when you demonstrate the courage of your convictions by identifying yourself. That’s me signing off until you do so.


    Comment by Dave Lane — 1 May 2008 @ 10:16 pm

  16. Upon reflection, I’m also intrigued by the fact that Microsoft supporters feel the need to remain anonymous – like having their identity known would be a blemish on their reputation – while those who believe that they have a legitimate concern with Microsoft’s methods and behaviour are quite forthright and open about their position, willing to stake their reputations on it.

    Perhaps the AA can extend its umbrella slightly to shelter Microsoft Supporters Anonymous? It might offer those so afflicted some comfort in this cruel cruel world which is quietly leaving them behind…


    Comment by Dave Lane — 1 May 2008 @ 10:36 pm

  17. Dave, still no evidence I see. Just more conspiracy theories.

    Comment by Anon — 5 May 2008 @ 11:53 pm

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