Red Hat Summit panel: Who 'won' OOXML battle?

A Microsoft official said Wednesday that ODF clearly benefited from the fight over the OOXML standard

The Open Document Format (ODF) has benefited from the two-year battle over the ratification of Microsoft's rival Open Office XML (OOXML) standard, which is native to its Office 2007 suite, Microsoft's national technology officer said Thursday during a panel discussion at the Red Hat Summit in Boston.

"ODF has clearly won," said Stuart McKee, referring to Microsoft's recent announcement that it would begin natively supporting ODF in Office next year and join the technical committee overseeing the next version of the format.

"We sell software for a living. The ability to implement ODF in the middle of our ship cycle was just not possible," he said. "We couldn't do that during the release of Office 2007. We're looking forward and committed to doing more than [ODF-to-OOXML] translators."

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) ratified OOXML in April. ODF backers, including major vendors like IBM and Sun, long decried it as too proprietary to be declared a standard.

The heated drama could have played out differently had Microsoft been more involved in standards bodies in the past, McKee said. "Microsoft was really, really late to this game. It was very difficult to enter in conversations around the world where the debate had already been framed."

Panelist Douglas Johnson, an official involved with corporate standards at Sun Microsystems, said the attention caused by the debate has enabled other office-suite products to be competitive.

"The office-suite market has been ruled by one dominant player after another, but those markets were never governed by good open standards practices," he said. "What has happened is that this dominant-player market has actually been upset and opened to competition that didn't exist before." Sun's StarOffice product uses ODF.

Microsoft's decision to support ODF benefits the company as well as supporters of the standard, Johnson added.

"I'm a huge fan of Microsoft's ability to create these very huge markets, but they do have a problem: growing your market when you're the dominant player. They are starting to move to a business model that doesn't rely on keeping their document formats as a lock-in vector," he said.

Venky Hariharan, director of corporate affairs for Red Hat-India, said the OOXML battle has raised the profile of the standards community in general: "People are now seriously concerned about the governance of the standards process."

Microsoft will work to help evolve ODF, but it is doubtful that it and OOXML will ever merge, according to McKee. "I don't think we're going to see a situation where we have single unifying standards," he said.

That's because formats for one general purpose can have variations for different needs, such as the JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) standard, commonly used for lighter-weight images, and the TIFF (Tag Image File Format) specification, often employed for high-resolution files, he said.

But Hariharan disagreed in principle: "To have two standards for the same purpose defeats the idea. Multiple standards for the same application, in my opinion, is a bad thing. ... We should collaborate on developing standards and compete on their implementation."

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