Last week I was a keynote speaker at a conference in Beijing convened by the Chinese National Institution of Standardization, and learned quite a bit about the objectives and strategies of government and private industry in the PRC for utilizing open standards and open source software. I'll blog at a later date on many of these topics, but today I'll focus on just one: the news that the Chinese have developed their own open document format.
Here's what I learned at the conference, and what I've been able to find out since. I'll start with the basic details, and then offer a few thoughts on the significance of the news.
What UOF is: It's called the Uniform Office Format (UOF), and it's been in development since January of 2002; the first draft was completed in December of last year. It includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation modules, and comprises GUI, format and API specifications. Like both ODF and Office OpenXML, it is another "XML in a Zip file" format.
From what I understand, UOF was developed with less compulsion to follow the lead of Microsoft Office and its fifteen years of accumulating features, allowing UOF to be simpler rather than slavishly faithful to (and therefore constrained by) what has come before. I'm also told that the UOF format is based on existing Web standards, such as SVG. I believe that the presentations from the conference will be posted at the CNIS site sometime this week, and I will post the link to the UOF Case Study presentation of Mr. Wu Zhigang when it is available, which contains additional technical details.
Why UOF was developed: According to the introductory language to the specification itself, the lack of compatibility of documents generated by existing Chinese office application software products has limited sales of these products, leading the vendors of those products to seek a common format standard based on XML. Beyond creating the initial format standards, the goal is, " to lay [the] foundation for other related standards, such as physical storage format, application integration, etc. The standard will enhance compatibility of different office application software products, improve their usability, and finally make government procurement of home-made office application software a reality."
Who developed it: The working group that created UOF includes domestic office software vendors, application integration vendors, end users and research institutes. It was developed by consensus in an "open door meeting" environment with balloted voting.
Who supports UOF: The development effort was supported by the Hi-Tech Research and Development Program of China, and has been recognized by key government agencies, including the Standard Administration of China, Information Office of State Council, Ministry of Information Industry, and Ministry of Science and Technology.
How does UOF relate to ODF: There is already an effort in place to "harmonize" UOF and ODF, and from what I understand that process should be less challenging than making ODF and Office OpenXML play nicely together. The word "harmonize" is taken from a UOF working group ballot last May, at which time the participants recommended this activity. A draft charter for an OASIS technical committee to collaborate on such an effort can be found here, and includes the following:
Statement of purpose
1. To evaluate the OpenDocument 1.1 specification against the Chinese linguistic, cultural, business, academic, government, technical and similar requirements with special consideration given to how UOF meets these requirements.
2. To propose other recommendations regarding what steps should be taken for the purpose of harmonizing UOF and OpenDocument.
1. A formal evaluation of the suitability of the OpenDocument file format for the above requirements.
2. A list of additional capabilities and modifications OpenDocument requires to support above requirements.
3. Recommendations regarding what further steps should be taken for the purpose of harmonizing UOF and OpenDocument.
The exact approach that the technical committee would take within this purpose would be addressed when it convenes.
Significance: With that as prelude, what does this all mean in the grand scheme of things?
First and foremost, it means that the nation with the largest population and the most rapidly developing economy on earth has decided that its domestic software developers should be able to compete more effectively against foreign vendors in their home market, and that Chinese government, industry and individual users should enjoy more competitive product offerings and prices, as well as freedom from lock in.
Second, it is significant that the developers of UOF are interested in achieving harmonization with ODF, and that the opposite is also true. ODF is already widely implemented in a variety of proprietary and open source products, and making it easier for documents created by ODF-compliant products and those created using UOF-compliant office suites to be exchanged and modified helps create a larger compatible ecosystem, to the benefit of all as globalization continues.
Third, what of Office OpenXML? Implementation of UOF will continue the trend away from proprietary, "lock in" products, and towards an environment with more competition, more variety, and more freedom for end-users. Presumably, the proliferation of compatible open format alternatives will place added pressure on OOXML to become increasingly open and competitive in order to be relevant. Whether that will be sufficient to offset the appeal of alternative (and often cheaper) office suites implementing ODF and/or UOF remains to be seen.
Finally, there is a international trade picture to be aware of, which provided the rationale for the conference I attended. Today, there is a global standard setting infrastructure that is dominated primarily by the western, developed countries that created it, and that own most of the patents that are infringed by the standards created within that infrastructure. China is only now beginning to actively participate in that infrastructure, and suffers from a historical imbalance in patent ownership.
The result is that there are many standards that cannot be implemented, for all practical purposes, in products that are privately branded in China. As a result, while China can manufacturer many ICT products (such as DVD players and wireless telephones) on order for western companies that own the patents, it cannot afford to manufacturer and sell them itself, due to the high royalties that Chinese manufacturers would be required to pay.
This leaves three basic approaches available to the Chinese: learn to operate effectively in the existing standard structure (and file as many patents as quickly as possible); create their own "home grown" standards that do not infringe foreign patents, but may be protected by their own patents; or adopt other strategies, such as using patent pools and preferentially utilizing open source software that is not encumbered with royalty burdens and restrictive licensing terms.
Currently, China is trying all of these approaches, with varying success. Its experience with the WAPI standard has not been happy, leading it to question its prospects for competing in the existing standard structures, and suspecting the motives and tactics of some western companies. It is also creating a variety of home grown standards in addition to WAPI, including competitive standards for 3G, RFID, mobile video, and more. And its reception for open source software has been enthusiastic.
In this light, the opportunity to launch and sustain a healthy East-West collaborative effort harmonizing document standards is important, and one that I hope will be regarded as extremely successful by both sides when it is completed. It is all too easy for standards development efforts to diverge rather than converge, and there are far too many standards wars already. We need to seek, and make the most of, opportunities to learn to work together whenever they are offered.
I'm sure that you'll be hearing more about UOF in the months to come, and I'll report on it again as I learn more.
A note on sources: This story is based on presentations at the Beijing conference, on private conversations with those that have had involvement with the UOF project in Beijing and in the United States, and on the OASIS link above. OASIS was not a source for this entry. For more on some other aspects of the conference, see the following perceptive entry by Stephen Walli, who was also a speaker at the event.
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