'Office' politics and the XML file format fight

Why is Microsoft so interested in conforming to international standards with its office suite, anyway?

OK, try to follow this: Microsoft has spent the past two years slamming its Open XML file format through the process to make it an international standard. Along the way, there's been arm-twisting, committee-packing, bribery and other chicanery. But by last week, Microsoft was one step away from success.

And that's when Microsoft adopted a competing standard.

Sound crazy? Sure -- until you learn that Microsoft's own products don't actually conform to the standard that Microsoft has been twisting arms to pass. And that the competing standard, the OpenDocument format (ODF), will actually be easier to add to Microsoft Office than Open XML would be.

So if Microsoft wants to sell an office suite with a file format that meets formal international standards anytime soon, it has to go with ODF.

That's why the company announced last week that the next service pack for Office 2007 will include the ability to save Office documents in ODF but that complying with the Open XML standard will have to wait until the next full version of Microsoft Office.

Think you're all the way down this rabbit hole? Think again: Why is Microsoft so interested in conforming to international standards with its office suite, anyway? Doesn't Microsoft already pretty much own that market?

Sure. And that's why developers of competing office suites -- in particular, the open-source OpenOffice -- started lobbying years ago to get large users such as governments to require archival storage formats that aren't under the control of a single vendor.

They had a point. Microsoft is notorious for changing its file formats with every new release of Office and only partially documenting the formats. That threatens to turn archival documents created with Office into just so many incomprehensible bits.

The competitors spent five years getting their OpenDocument format for XML-based documents approved as a formal standard, first by the OASIS consortium and then by the international standards group ISO. They hoped that would give them a leg up against Microsoft, which was committed to its own XML document format, Open XML.

But Microsoft found a tame standards group, Ecma, to fast-track Open XML to become a standard. Despite complaints that the fast-track process is supposed to be only for well-understood, widely implemented formats -- and there was only one vendor offering Open XML, Microsoft -- by late April, Microsoft had narrowly won the final round of votes, and its format was a draft ISO standard.

That was when ISO revealed that Microsoft Office 2007 doesn't actually meet the spec for the standard Microsoft worked so hard to pass.

Which means there are zero vendors currently offering Open XML.

After a hard look at how long it would take to meet the ISO specifications for each of the formats, Microsoft decided ODF would be easier to do. That's why it will come first.

And here's the funhouse-mirror result of this long, strange trip: Microsoft wins its standards battle, but adopts the XML file format it has fought against for years.

Microsoft's competitors succeed in getting Microsoft to adopt their file format -- but lose their longed-for leg up against Microsoft Office.

And users get the standard XML file format they need -- just nothing like the way they expected to get it.

Follow all that? Good. Now will someone please remind me again that standards are all about predictability?

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Frank Hayes

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