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Monday, September 01 2014 @ 08:58 AM CDT

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Microsoft Drops the Other Open Format Shoe

OpenDocument and OOXMLEver since I interviewed Microsoft's Alan Yates back in September in connection with the Massachusetts/ODF story I've been wondering what Microsoft's strategy has been to fend off the challenge to Microsoft Office that the OASIS format standard presented. Today we found out.
This post was updated between 8:45 and 10:00 PM EST, to include additional information on a number of fronts. To see what's happened since then, see this post from Tuesday morning.

Ever since I interviewed Alan Yates at Microsoft back in September in connection with the Massachusetts/ODF story I've been wondering what Microsoft's strategy has been to fend off the challenge to Microsoft Office that the OASIS format standard presented. Microsoft did not get to be what it is today by being less than tough and thorough, and it had to be true that they would leave as little to chance as possible.

While Yates has been very terse and consistent in his public statements, things were certainly moving quickly behind the scenes, and it didn't take too long before the company's targeted Massachusetts strategy and global response emerged into the open.

The first shoe fell when an amendment was introduced in the Massachusetts Senate to remove policy authority from Peter Quinn and the Commonwealth's Information Technology Division. And the second, global, shoe just dropped today, as reported in a ComputerWorld story posted today aptly titled, and subtitled, Microsoft to open Office document format: The move could spark a standards fight over document formats .

Let's get the facts out first, at least to the extent that they are available, based on initial industry articles and Microsoft's press release .The key points are as follows:

a) Microsoft claims to have lined up a number of heavy duty supporters, including Apple and Intel (each of which was at the Armonk meeting as an ODF supporter). Apple even offered the following quote, atttributed to Philip Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing, for use in the Microsoft press release:

Apple is pleased to support an Ecma standard for Microsoft Office Open XML document formats, which will make them more open and widely available to all. Apple and Microsoft will continue to work closely together to deliver great products to Mac users and application developers for many years to come.

Intel's Renee James, vice president and general manager of the Software and Solutions Group, in turn contributed the following vote of support:

We view Microsoft's move to offer its widely deployed XML file formats for Ecma standardization as a very important and positive step forward for the industry. We are pleased to participate in the Ecma submission and documentation process, and believe our customers will benefit from better interoperability and systems integration.

The other members of the initial supporting troup are Barclays Capital, BP, the British Library, Essilor, NextPage Inc., Statoil ASA and Toshiba

b) Microsoft will offer its Office Open XML formats to Ecma International "early next month", a European IT standards body in Europe with a close relationship with ISO

c) Alan Yates has said that the ECMA/ISO process would take "about a year" and would yield an ISO imprimatur by the time Office 12 ships.

d) Microsoft will make specific licensing commitments to remove "virtually all barriers" that would prevent developers from working with the file formats.

e) Microsoft is wrapping itself in the Open flag (sample quote from Yates: "We look forward to the day when people look at this as a milestone, as the beginning of the end for closed documents")

Microsoft was meticulous in its preparations, even to the extent of gaining the commimtment of a prestigious library to back its formats, in an effort to offset the cachet of the U.S. Library of Congress' support for ODF, and the fact that the Australian National Archive was a charter member of the OASIS ODF Technical Committee. That library was none other than the British Library, which also offered the following supporting quote (attributed to Adam Farquhar, head of e-Architecture) to the Microsoft press release:

Just as our predecessors stewarded the development of the national published archive over the past 250 years, the British Library is committed to preserving and providing access to the U.K.'s digital heritage. We expect that establishing Microsoft Office Open XML as an open standard will substantially enhance our ability to achieve this. It's an important step forward for digital preservation and will help us fulfill the British Library's core responsibility of making our digital collections accessible for generations to come.

Microsoft chose Europe as the location for making its announcement. As reported by Reuters:

The move was announced in Europe, because "this is really a hotbed for standardisation efforts, and it is where people appreciate what we're doing in greater detail," Yates added.

Microsoft has been in a long-running battle against antitrust sanctions imposed by the European Commission for abuse of its dominant Windows software. In March 2004, the European Union executive found Microsoft abused dominance of the Windows operating system so it could damage rival makers of work-group servers and media players.

Barclays Capital welcomed the move, because it could start mixing its massive amounts of financial and other data in different applications from many software vendors. "We won't be trapped in Excel and Word," said Stephen Deakin, director for information technology at Barclays Capital, adding it may even strengthen the position of Microsoft Office.

The Reuters report also state that Yates indicated that "Government agencies, although not included in the initial list of supporters, were expected to endorse the move in coming days and weeks."

And while Yates in several articles mentioned the desire of government customers for an open format solution, the FinancialTimes.com juxtaposed Microsoft's antitrust issues in Europe and its format decision as follows:

The move is separate to Microsoft’s ongoing antitrust case with the European Commission, but comes in response to another concern raised by the European Union executive body.

The Commission is eager to promote e-government services, but is concerned about access to public documents created in proprietary formats such as Microsoft Office. It is keen to ensure that all EU citizens are able to access electronic government documents without being obliged to buy a specific company’s software.

It has been encouraging Microsoft and competitors such as Sun Microsystems and IBM to adopt open standards for office documents and ensure their products are interoperable. Sun and IBM took steps to open up their document formats last year, but Microsoft has been slow to respond.

Had Microsoft failed to act on the issue, the Commission could have stopped using Microsoft Office for the creation of public documents and advised all 25 national governments in the European Union to do the same.

So what does this all mean (and not mean?) The following observations and questions immediately pop to mind:

1. What's promised today and delivered "a year from now" can be very different -- a distinction that may be lost (for example) on the Massachusetts legislature. On the other hand, ECMA has committed to work with Microsoft to accept the submission, and Jan van den Beld, secretary general of Ecma International, allowed himesefl to be quoted as follows in the Microsoft's press release:

We are pleased that Microsoft and its partners are making this submission to Ecma International. Our members around the globe pride themselves in their ability to drive progress and consensus on important technologies."

2. The OASIS ODF Format Standard has already been placed in the queau at ISO for approval, via the Publicly Available Specification (PAS) process. Ecma may have committed to offer the Microsoft formats to ISO for adoption, but with ODF already in the protracted ballot stage at ISO, will the global body want to be bothered with a second, competing standard when it already (presumably) has endorsed a champion?

3. The Microsoft press release explicitly mention Word, Excel and Powerpoint -- but not the database or other components of Office. Why not?

4. ECMA and ISO have RAND policies that I believe would fall short of the bar set by Massachusetts. An article by Martin LaMonica at ZDNet.com records RedMonk's Steve O'Grady's opinion that Microsoft's past performance in offering technology to ECMA leaves it "not clear that Microsoft will relinquish control of the Office formats to other companies." The most detailed information by far from the articles available as of this evening on the parameters of the license that Microsoft intends to provide can be found in the eWeek article by Peter Galli, which quotes Allan Yates as follows:

The new license that will accompany the Open XML format with the standards organization will go well beyond traditional standards licensing and will be very positive for the vast majority of developers, even open-source developers. We have gone further with this license, explicitly to widen the net for developers. Basically, it is a broad promise from Microsoft not to sue anyone for use of the formats. So that kind of broad, yet simple, promise from Microsoft will last well into the future and will appeal to all developers.

This would also make it easier for competing desktop application suites like Sun Microsystems Inc.'s branded StarOffice and Openoffice.org to be compatible with Office, he said.

The license will be posted to the Office XML Web site on Wednesday, along with additional information about the submission to Ecma International. With regard to the competing Ecma-approved Open Document Format for Office Applications standard, Yates said Microsoft's standard would differ.

You have to understand that the Open Document group wrote their specification to satisfy a certain number of customer requirements, and we have done the same. We have had a very different and much more ambitious set of requirements to meet. So we are meeting the requirements of backwards compatibility with all of the billions of documents that are in previous Office versions [Yates said].

But we are also focused on the forward functionality and representing all of them in Office 12, in XML, and we have the ability in that product to integrate directly the XML data from customers' information systems into and out of our Office format," he said.

5. What's the story on Apple and Intel? Did Microsoft turn them after the meeting only a bit more than two weeks ago in Armonk, did they attend as Fifth Columnists, or were they still deciding which side to come down on? I was there, and neither was vocal during the plenary sessions I attended (I don't recall whether they either had a representative in the strategy breakout group, but if they did, s/he did not participate meaningfully).

6. Speaking directly to Massachusetts (albeit not by name), Allan Yates was quoted as follows in the eWeek article:

The move was important for customers who wanted greater control of the content and data in their documents, Yates said, enabling them to bring old documents forward into the open, XML-based future, improve business processes through the use of XML in documents, and give long-term storage and archival options for all those documents....

"This move to standardization really gives them the confidence that they can move data around in the context of a document. So that is the ultimate goal that many of them are waking up to. This move also [affects] the billions of documents that customers already have out there and enables them to tap into this new level of functionality and enables many new scenarios around open documents," he said.

It also would give customers the confidence that they could store documents in a format that would be long-lasting and even permanent, along with the promise that there would be many tools available to support the document use, he said, adding that customers would "not be reliant on one product or one version of a previous product from the past in order to open up those documents."

7. And perhaps most tellingly, if Microsoft is willing to open its formats and to come up with the necessary converters to allow old documents to be upgraded, why not just support ODF? What's the advantage that will be maintained?

At this point, there's much more to be learned, and I'll be watching the news as it becomes available. You can look for this post to be updated tonight and tomorrow morning, with more posts to follow.

* * * * * * *

Text of Microsoft Press Release

PARIS, Nov. 21, 2005 (PR Newswire delivered by Newstex) -- Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) today announced it will take steps to offer the file format technology behind billions of documents to customers and the industry as an international standard. Apple, Barclays Capital, BP, the British Library, Essilor, Intel Corporation, Microsoft, NextPage Inc., Statoil ASA and Toshiba will co-sponsor a submission to Ecma International, the standards organization, of the Microsoft(R) Office Open XML (Extensible Markup Language) document format technology. Furthermore, Microsoft will make available tools to enable old documents to capitalize on the open standard format. With Office document formats available as an open standard, customers will have even more confidence in their ability to store and manage data for the long term, with many more vendors and tools from which they can choose. The move will benefit the broader software ecosystem because software and services vendors worldwide will be able to more easily build compelling solutions that interoperate across a broad spectrum of technologies.

These global industry leaders have agreed to work together as part of an open technical committee that Ecma members can join to standardize and fully document the Open XML formats for Word, Excel(R) and PowerPoint(R) from the next generation of Office technologies, code-named Office "12," as an Ecma standard, and to help maintain the evolution of the formats. The group will ask Ecma to submit the results of their collaboration to the International Organization for Standardization for approval.

With thousands of documents created every minute in an Office format, Microsoft's Office formats are used in dramatic numbers. More than 300,000 developers have utilized the XML file formats in Office 2003 editions alone. Those documents will be able to take advantage of the benefits of the new open standard, enabling document contents to be accessed, searched, used, integrated and developed in new, innovative ways. Customers, technology providers and developers around the globe will be able to work with the Open XML file formats without barriers, creating a broad ecosystem of products, applications and services that can work with the formats, with or without Microsoft software. As a result, documents and public records can be archived, maintained and maintained in perpetuity with long-term, widespread industry support.

"We are committed to open standards such as XML to provide the highest levels of interoperability between legacy and next-generation software," said Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International. "The creation of an XML file format standard is a major industry milestone. We hope this will provide both users and organizations with the peace of mind that they will be able to access their past and future documents for generations to come."

"We are pleased that Microsoft and its partners are making this submission to Ecma International," said Jan van den Beld, secretary general of Ecma International. "Our members around the globe pride themselves in their ability to drive progress and consensus on important technologies."

"Apple is pleased to support an Ecma standard for Microsoft Office Open XML document formats, which will make them more open and widely available to all," said Philip Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing at Apple. "Apple and Microsoft will continue to work closely together to deliver great products to Mac users and application developers for many years to come."

"We view Microsoft's move to offer its widely deployed XML file formats for Ecma standardization as a very important and positive step forward for the industry," said Renee James, vice president and general manager of the Software and Solutions Group at Intel. "We are pleased to participate in the Ecma submission and documentation process, and believe our customers will benefit from better interoperability and systems integration."

"Just as our predecessors stewarded the development of the national published archive over the past 250 years, the British Library is committed to preserving and providing access to the U.K.'s digital heritage," said Adam Farquhar, head of e-Architecture at the British Library. "We expect that establishing Microsoft Office Open XML as an open standard will substantially enhance our ability to achieve this. It's an important step forward for digital preservation and will help us fulfill the British Library's core responsibility of making our digital collections accessible for generations to come."

* * * * * * *

Other Resources and Viewpoints

NextPage press release

Groklaw.net entry and extensive discussion thread

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