Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Can anything save OOXML?

Apparently not. Let me explain.

Two years ago I went as part of the New Zealand delegation to a meeting in Geneva called to determine the fate of a proposed new ISO/IEC document format standard, called colloquially OOXML or Office Open XML. Despite its name this standard had nothing to do with the OpenOffice word processing and spreadsheet program – which, in fact, uses a well established ISO standard format called ODF. Rather, OOXML was a an entirely different format invented by Microsoft for use by its Office 2007 suite.  Microsoft was very keen that OOXML be made an ISO standard, taking a full page ad in the Dominion Post claiming all kinds of benefits, including, mystifyingly, “provid[ing] choice about which software we use to exchange to documents” and “fostering innovation”.

The OOXML specification weighed in at 6,500 pages. At the time of the meeting in February 2008, national standards bodies had already voted not to standardize it. Their objections covered a huge range of technical problems with the standard, concerns that the standard might be encumbered with patent claims, and a view among some that setting multiple standards for the same thing would hinder the ability of people and businesses to swap documents between different word processors. The meeting I went to was intended to deal with the technical concerns.

By the time we arrived at the meeting 1,500 pages of changes had been proposed to the draft standard. The meeting, which had about 50 countries with an average of three attendees each, then tried to work its way through these changes to see if they could ‘fix’ the technical problems in the draft standard. Needless to say, it didn’t get a long way through and ended up voted to accept a lot of the proposed changes en masse.

I don’t want to imply that the people in the meeting didn’t work hard on that draft standard. We put huge effort into trying sort out its problems. One thing the meeting did was to split the draft standard into two streams, called “transitional” and “strict”. Transitional corresponded pretty much to the original 6,500 pages with its long list of technical problems. Strict included many of the changes in the 1,500 pages of changes and more stuff that we put in during the meeting. Things like accessibility for blind people. There was a lot. It was understood that software should support the strict version (i.e the improved version) of the standard as soon as possible, and the transitional version was just there to get through the next year or so.

Regarding the other two problems of patents and multiple standards: the international standards bodies ISO and IEC said that Microsoft had assured them that were no patent issues and they accepted that. ISO/IEC also said that multiple standards for the same thing weren’t a problem in themselves.

After the meeting and the assurances from ISO/IEC, national bodies had a chance to change their votes. Some did, and OOXML became an ISO standard. End of story.

But, perhaps not. Flash forward to 2010. Many Microsoft Office users now use OOXML document formats. These are the files called .docx and .xlsx saved by Office 2007 and 2008 that older copies of Office can’t open without special plugins. They aren’t saving in the standardized versions of OOXML, but Microsoft assured us in 2008 that with the next release of Microsoft Office they will be. There are formatting problems interchanging files with OpenOffice and other suites, but since Microsoft has such a high proportion of the market this only annoys the few people who dare to use anything else.

So, business as usual. And at least we have a standard, and hopefully competing software will eventually catch up with it. Except for two things: during the meeting in Geneva Office 2007 was brand new. Now the next version – Office 2010 – is coming out in beta around now and it won’t support saving documents in strict OOXML. Just the transitional version with its huge list of technical problems. Sure, it can read strict OOXML, but since nothing saves strict OOXML this is not terribly useful. Microsoft says to wait for the next Office release if you want to save documents in OOXML. That’s going to be two to three years away. For now and until at least 4 years after that meeting, nothing can save OOXML – the standard is purely theoretical.

A lot of people sweated blood to improve OOXML, but it looks like they needn’t have. The meeting in Geneva need never have happened, although of course countries would never have voted for OOXML to be standardized if it hadn’t.

The independent chair of that Geneva meeting, Alex Brown, is clearly very disappointed about the outcome, two years down the track. He now has this to say:

I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today,
that the division of OOXML into Strict and Transitional variants was
the innovation which allowed the Standard to pass. Enough National
Bodies could then vote in good conscience for OOXML knowing that
their preferred, Strict, variant would be under their control into
the future while the Transitional variant (which – remember – they
had effectively rejected in 2007) would remain purely for the purpose
of accurately specifying old documents.

In other words, the basis on which some countries changed their minds and voted for OOXML standardization turns out not to be real. At least, not yet, two years and another Office version down the track.

And there’s another problem. Remember the concerns about potential patents over OOXML that that ISO/IEC said was a non-issue? It seems that another company called i4i has been suing Microsoft for patent violation on a core part of OOXML (they call it “Custom XML” – it was one of the selling points of OOXML) from the get-go. Some XML specialists are saying that the i4i patent is silly and should never have been granted. Maybe. But it’s won twice in court now. That effectively prevents developers from implementing it, making the standard useless.

This patent suit was filed in March 2007. It had been extant for almost a year early 2008 when ISO/IEC were assured that there were no patent issues. That was the assurance they passed on to us meeting participants. Where does that leave the standard now? According to ISO/IEC:

If, after publication of the standard, it is determined
that licenses to all required patents are not so available, one
option would be to withdraw the International Standard.

I wonder if that will happen?

This whole business leaves me wondering why and how so many people, companies and governments were induced to invest so much effort into the whole thing.

In a Sex Pistols live recording somewhere in my CD collection, Johnny Rotten snarls into an open mic: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” I’m guessing that the world’s standards bodies feel that way right now.

I’ll leave the final comment to Alex Brown:

it seems to me that without a change of direction the
entire OOXML project is now surely heading for failure.

Quite. Can anything save OOXML?

posted by colin at 7:15 am  


  1. Can anything save OOXML?

    I hope not ;)

    Comment by Jo — 14 April 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  2. Excellent Article.

    Hope the i4i patent will not affect ODF.

    Comment by HC — 17 May 2010 @ 3:04 am

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