ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words (an eBook in Process)

For some time I've been considering writing a book about what has become a standards war of truly epic proportions.  I refer, of course, to the ongoing, ever expanding, still escalating conflict between ODF and OOXML, a battle that is playing out across five continents and in both the halls of government and the marketplace alike.  And, needless to say, at countless blogs and news sites all the Web over as well.

Arrayed on one side or the other, either in the forefront of battle or behind the scenes, are most of the major IT vendors of our time.  And at the center of the conflict is Microsoft, the most successful software vendor of all time, faced with the first significant challenge ever to ione of its core businesses and profit centers – its flagship Office productivity suite.

The story has other notable features as well:  ODF is the first IT standard to be taken up as a popular cause, and also represents the first "cross over" standards issue that has attracted the broad support of the open source community.  Then there are the societal dimensions: open formats are needed to safeguard our culture and our history from oblivion.  And when implemented in open source software and deployed on Linux-based systems (not to mention One Laptop Per Child computers), the benefits and opportunities of IT become more available to those throughout the third world.

There is little question, I think, that regardless of where and how this saga ends, it will be studied in business schools and by economists for decades to come.  What they will conclude will depend in part upon the materials we leave behind for them to examine.  That’s one of the reasons I’m launching this effort now, as a publicly posted eBook in progress, rather than waiting until some indefinite point in the future when the memories of the players in this drama have become colored by the passage of time and the influence of later events.

My hope is that those of you who have played or are now playing a part in the ODF vs. OOXML story will supplement or correct what I’m writing by sharing your facts and insights, either by posting your comments publicly at this blog, or by contacting me privately me via email.  My goal will be to present what happened as completely, accurately and readably as I can, so I hope that those on both sides of the fence will work with me.  In all cases, I will try and fairly incorporate what you offer into the whole.

My second goal is to help those that have come to this story late in the day – halfway through the movie, as it were – learn what happened prior to when you entered the theater.  That way, you’ll be better able to put current events into context as they happen, understand the cast of characters more fully as they continue to play their parts, and above all, appreciate the nuances of the still unfolding plot.

So without further ado, here is the first chapter of a book whose total length will be determined by events yet to unfold, whose ultimate print publisher is yet to be found, and which for now bears the working title of:


Chapter 1:  Out of Nowhere

On September 1, 2005, a New York-based writer for the London Financial Times named Richard Waters wrote a brief article, posting it to the Web via FT.com’s  San Francisco office.   The seemingly unremarkable subject of the piece was the release of a new draft of a procurement guideline by the Information Technology Division (ITD) of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ procurement of new technology.  Some of the datapoints in the article were wide of the mark (he referred to Massachusetts as "one of the most populous states in the US" for example), but this was fitting for a story that would circle the world for years to come, as often as not unencumbered by facts inconsistent with the spin du jour.

What elevated the story from a space filler in the business section to a hot property was the news that the ITD planned to banish Microsoft’s Office software suite from 50,000 government computers.  If the ITD had its way, 28 Executive Agencies would no longer use Word to create documents, Excel to plot spreadsheets, or PowerPoint to craft presentations.  Instead, government employees would be required to use software that saved documents in "open formats" – which Office did not, according to the ITD’s definition.  Moreover, Microsoft claimed that it had been taken by surprise by the decision (a claim the ITD later denied); Waters rubbed salt in the wound by describing the event as "one of the most significant setbacks" for Microsoft in the US market.

Only the FT.com site carried the story at first.  But word of the defection of this large Microsoft customer spread quickly via the Internet, in large part because of the abundance of blogs and amateur news sites that focus on technology stories, but also because so many of the people who write for and visit these sites are hostile to Microsoft.  Soon, visitors with strange on-line aliases like SpaceLifeForm, Sammy the Snake and Cybervegan were posting gleeful comments at the expense of the software vendor, and trying to learn more about what "open formats" might be, and why they were so important.

The decision makers in Massachusetts were Peter Quinn, the state’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), and his boss, Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss.  There were good reasons why they wanted to convert to software capable of saving documents using open formats. One was so that citizens could exchange documents with the State no matter what software they chose to use.  As things currently stood, someone in Massachusetts would need to invest in a copy of Office before it could download a document electronically from a state government site.

But an even more important motivation arose from the fact that Massachusetts, like governments everywhere, was rapidly moving towards a future where public records in paper form would cease to exist.  Soon, government archives would exclusively comprise documents in electronic form, stored in vast banks of servers or on magnetic media.  After thousands of years, traditional hard copy documents were destined to follow the path earlier taken by musical recordings, which in the course of a hundred years had already passed from wax, to vinyl, to tape, to optical disk media, eventually to slip the surly bonds of discrete physical storage media entirely and be reborn as electronic files.  These files were recorded in formats of their own, with interesting names like Ogg Vorbis, or more prosaic ones, like MP3 (both open formats), as well as the proprietary formats that Apple uses to create its popular iTunes.

Each time one of these new storage formats (physical and then virtual) had came along, the old one became obsolete.  Within a matter of years, new music couldn’t be purchased in the old format at all.  Anyone that wanted to upgrade their equipment while preserving their existing investment in the old format needed to keep their old player in good repair, or else laboriously transfer their old albums, song by song, to the new format, losing fidelity in the process.   Once word processors, each using a proprietary format (Word, WordPerfect and so on), replaced typewriters governments, businesses and individuals faced a repeat of the same experience.  Most had already faced at least one such conversion, typically moving from WordPerfect to Microsoft’s Office, after the latter product became dominant in the marketplace.

Governments that now wished to digitize the millions of hard copy documents lying in their archives faced a far greater challenge due to the sheer size of the task.  And they also felt a greater responsibility as well.  Simply put, Massachusetts wanted to be sure that in five, ten or a hundred years it would be able to access thoses digitized documents using whatever equipment was then available, rather than having to dust off the equivalent of an eight track tape player – if it could find one.

Waters may have used a bit of hyperbole to inflate the commercial importance of Massachusetts in his Financial Times article, but his calibration of the threat that the Massachusetts decision presented to Microsoft was right on the money.  Indeed, Microsoft was already deploying its considerable resources to take all actions necessary to bring about a reversal of the ITD’s decision, if at all possible, and to blunt the market impact of the decision otherwise. 

The reason lay not so much in the potential loss of revenue from this large customer, but in the dramatic increase in credibility that the announcement gave to the importance of open formats.  Microsoft owned more than 90% of the global marketplace for office suite software, and had worked long and hard to achieve that enviable position.  Some 400 million customers used Office, and it wasn’t likely that Microsoft would lose them, so long as software utilized "closed" formats controlled by individual vendors.  While that state of affairs continued, most customers would remain trapped  by the billions of documents they had already created.  Opening, converting and resaving those documents using the software of any other vendor would be difficult, time consuming and expensive.  In the words of economists, these customers were safely "locked in."

But now an open format standard was available that promised to liberate users from lock in to Office for life.  And a high-profile customer had announced that it was leaving the pack to adopt it.  For the first time, there was a breach in Microsoft’s outer defenses.  In response, the vendor was marshalling all of the forces at its disposal to contain the threat before it could spread.

->Next Chapter:      Products, Innovation and Market Share
In which Microsoft conquers the desktop operating system marketplace through a combination of luck, a willingness to adopt the innovations of others, and aggressive business practices

  <All Chapters>

sign up for a free subscription to Standards Today today!

Comments (32)

  1. What a wonderful opening chapter and what a marvelous idea.  There can be no one better suited than you yourself to create the e-book you envisage.   The proposed record of history in the making must surely be a singular service to humanity. 
    May you be blessed with word smithing skills to suit the occasion.

    Best wishes,

    . . Ted Swart . .

    • Ted,

      Thanks very much for the inspiring send off!  I can’t ask for better than that.

        –  Andy

  2. Ah, a truly interactive story . . . as it is being written, its very dissemination will influence and shape the ending itself. (It’s my belief that the political and philosophical essence of the ODF make its dominance inevitable, and I suspect MS knows this already.)

  3. Thank you Mr. Updegrove, for the good idea of documenting the historical process (still going on) around the formats.


    I have been monitoring as well the process (war??) more or less closely from Europe (Finland). To me, as pointed out by Mr. Updegrove, the major boost for the discussions around the formats has been given the decisions taken in Massachusetts. However, it is important to remember the parallel process was taking place in Europe particularily in EU. The most prominent indication of that has been the famous Valoris report (http://ec.europa.eu/idabc/en/document/3439/5585#recommendations), 2003, and the TAC recommendations concerning the Valoris findings. One of the TAC recommendations was to get the ISO standardisation approval for the OASIS OpenOffice.org format.

    Best wishes,


    Markku Oraviita

    • Thank you very much for reminding me of that report, which I will certainly refer to.

      One of the challenges of this project will be present all of the relevant pieces in the puzzle, one of which will certainly be the various forces at work in Europe and elsewhere around the world that helped prepare fertile ground for ODF support to take root.  What I plan to follow is a model where the narrative chapters are interspersed with primarily background chapters on topics such as the European background, the development of FOSS, and so on, so that a general audience as well as a technically sophisticated one will be able to make sense of it all. 

      Look for a detailed chapter (and, of course, ongoing references) to the European scene after about six or seven other ones that will cover those issues, like FOSS, Microsoft’s product mix, and so on, that will provide the necessary foundation for others, such as the European viewpoint.

        –  Andy

  4. During the ODF OOXML war we also got a lot of inside information from countries that are always ignored by the big and small media, any media actually. A real first for me.

    Personally, I consider the Open Malaysia blog an invaluable source of insight. It also allows a view into the kitchen in a Asian country, far removed from the politics of the USA and EU.


    They were the ones who came with the exclusive admission of Bill Hilf that OOXML is indeed intrically linked into the source code of Office07 and sharepoint.

    What got really interesting was when Yusseri raised the issue of OOXML and why didn’t Microsoft just work on ODF in collaboration instead of creating a new, bloated standard. Bill’s answer was quite surprising, as he clarified that the file format (OOXML) was a part of the software and that OOXML and the software (MS Office) are quite inseparable. Ergo, OOXML is an integral and inseparable part of MS Office. That’s why they could not adopt ODF as the file format for subsequent versions of MS Office.

    I don’t really know if Bill realises this, but he’s just illuminated that this whole OOXML, ECMA and ISO standards play is not about standards nor about Microsoft vs IBM but about legitimizing as a standard a specific technology from a single company developed in isolation from the general technology and user community worldwide.

    This really was priceless. A followup was posted at http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/04/return_from_red.html

    Another good move was when they showed up at a meeting with a print-out of the ECMA 376 standard, all 6000+ pages:
    An earlier version of the picture:
    Which was then again discussed in more "mainstream" media

    And finally the inexplainable way that both Malaysia’s TC’s voted against OOXML, but the country miraculously voted to abstain with comments:

    In short, this blog gave me an insight into the way things were done only few blogs could equal. No other media came even in the same ball-park.


  5. Is "iTunes" a format? Isn’t it a piece of software, whereas the format is called AAC?

    • Fair point.  I got a bit sloppy there.  I’ve cleaned it up now, and thanks for pointing that out.

        –  Andy

      • I would also like to point out that it’s still very possible to get music on vinyl.  In fact, it’s easier than ever- you merely have to ask for it..

    • Also, AAC is not a proprietary format. It’s more open than MP3, which is patent-encumbered.

      The FairPlay DRM that wraps AAC on some/most songs from the iTunes store is proprietary, but when you buy DRM-free songs or rip them at home in iTunes, you’re getting open AAC files.

  6. Excellent start. I await the next installment with bated monitor. At some point, you might wish to include some background on the origin and history of open formats in general. Back in the day, open formats were a given, so how did we get to proprietary formats? Why were people willing to accept them? and so on.

    • Indeed, I will be doing quite a bit of  background, some of which, I expect, will leave some people twiddling their thumbs and wondering why I’m covering things they already know.  For example, the next chapter will be a brief history of Microsoft’s major product development history, for the purpose of illustrating how important Office is to their financial results.  Old new for those of a certain age, but it may fill in a few voids for those that are younger – and never had the pleasure (for instance) of using WordPerfect.

        –  Andy

      • <p>I’m not sure if this is what you’re referring to, but as part of a ‘history’ chapter, it might be worth noting how Microsoft could just raise the specter of the 80’s until ODF came along. The hell of multiple incompatible file formats is something no organisation could cope with in the Internet age, so any form of competition in the market was impractical before the industry promised to rally round a single format.</p>

        <p> – Andrew</p>

      • I will indeed be talking about the history of word processing, how we came to where we are, and why open formats threaten a continuation of the status quo.

          –  Andy

  7. Don’t you think that any such book should be written by someone that’s a bit more objective about the subject?

    I mean, regardless of whether or not you believe you are right, the fact is your words will always be colored by the fact that you have a financial interest in the oucome of this "war".


    • Parent suggests that someone more ‘objective’
      should write such a book. 

      To which I say … go right ahead.  If you
      can find someone who cares about this enough
      to write, who is also objective about it …

      I find no problem with Andy writing such a
      story.  Regardless of the outcome of this
      battle or war, money can be made in writing
      a book about it. 

      And even if there were not much money in the
      story, I think there is a lot of value in
      recording this information in a timely

      I do believe that MS will not be happy with
      details of their activities in this regard
      being exposed and preserved.  In a way, this
      is perhaps one of the more compelling reasons
      that such a book should be written.

      To Andy: Best wishes … and may the muses of
      writing bless you abundantly.

    • You have an open invitation from the author of the blog to post comments and corrections on any actual instances of bias or misstatements of fact. Let’s hear them, with specificity, if you actually have any. Otherwise it’s just FUD.

    • Not exactly sure what that financial interest is of which you speak.  OASIS is a client of mine, yes – one of over a hundred that I work with.  They have more than 55 work groups, of which ODF is only one.  And whatever legal bills I may send them will, I’m sure, be paid regardless of how ODF fares in the marketplace.

      Books are written by those that choose to write them – and they’re read by those that choose to read them.  My goal will certainly be to write an objective account, and those that decide whether to read what I write, or not, can reach that decision on their own..

        –  Andy

  8. Looks good so far.  You’re always one of the key places I turn for informative comment on this issue.

    Long as it’s going to be a book, I suppose it’s worth pointing out the little things.
    "Soon, visitors with strange on-line aliases like SpaceLifeForm, Sammy the Snake and Cybervegan were posting gleeful comments at the expense of the software vendor, and trying to learn more about what "open formats" might be, and why there were so important."
    You want "’they’ were so important".  Spellcheckers don’t catch homonyms, drat ’em.


    • In the same vein, I believe the word you meant was ensure not insure.

  9. To me the phrase

    "recorded in open (and sometimes proprietary) formats of their own with names like "MP3" and "iTunes."

    implies mp3 and iTunes are open formats. Perhaps something like

    "recorded in open formats like Ogg Vorbis and sometimes proprietary ones like mp3 and the formats used by iTunes."

    would be clearer.

    • A good suggestion, which I will adopt now.  Thanks for the help.

        –  Andy

      • I do not think this discussion belongs to chapter 1, but MP3 shows that distinction "open" vs "proprietary" is not clear-cut. MP3 is open standard by any sane definition: it was not developed by a single company, it has published specifications, it has huge number of interoperable implementations, heck it’s approved by ISO as ISO/IEC 11172-3:1993! The only problem with MP3 is that you can not freely create and use implementations in few countries (including U.S.) – and that is only for a few years: 10 years from now it’ll be 100% free and open in all senses in all countries. You can use it today for archival purposes and there will be no problems in the future.

        And of course there are other standards which started as proprietary (and were proprietary for many years) but eventually were opened up and now are considered free – for example Zip and GIF (Zip was even used for ISO-approved ODF despite it’s proprietary nature!)… Plus TeX: while developed by single person it works as archival format for last 20 years+ and works very well indeed.

        And of course there are "open" standards which are totally unsuitable for archival purposes – for example ISO 8613.

        In the end line lies not where ISO draws the line, but where IETF does: "an Internet Standard is a specification that is stable and well-understood, is technically competent, has multiple, independent, and interoperable implementations with substantial operational experience, enjoys significant public support, and is recognizably useful in some or all parts of the Internet". Note "multiple, independent, and interoperable implementations with substantial operational experience" – that’s the most important part of requirement! How well the documentation is written and how complete is the standard are not the deciding factor: how well independent implementation work together is the deciding factor. That difference explains why ISO often creates stillborn monsters (like aforementioned ISO 8613) while few IETF standards are abandoned…

      • Fair point about MP3, and I’ve modified the text accordingly.  Regarding definitions of open standards: that’s a topic upon which there is wide disagreement.  There’s nothing to argue with the IETF definition as such, although others would go farther in various directions, such as who can participate in the creation, whether or not the standard can be implemented royalty free, and whether it can be implemented in open source.  Note these later definitions need to be in place at the front end, whereas the IETF definition in part can only be tested after the standard is released into the marketplace, and "earned" it’s title. 

          –  Andy

      • MP3 deserves special mention as a ‘standard you cannot use’. It costs you 25 cents per device manufactured; but with a minimum of $15000 .

        Not really a problem for a bulk vendor such as Microsoft; but if you’re a hobbyist or an engineering student who wants to stay within the law, it’s totally out of the realm of usability. At least, until the patents on it expire.

        There’s also the little matter that we recently discovered that ATT was the patent holder, not Fraunhofer Institut as we had all thought for about 18 years. That little mistake seems to have cost Microsoft about a billion dollars.

        They can afford it. Trainee engineers and hobbyists cannot.

  10. You wrote: "ODF is the first IT to be taken up as a popular cause"
    In my opinion not entirely correct, fighting EU CII directive (software patents directive) was fairly popular and precede ODF afaik.

    • I somehow dropped a word there (now restored).  I meant "the first IT _standard_"  Thanks for pointing it out.

        –  Andy

  11. 2 weeks before the german vote took place, I observed a note on a marketing campaign for ms-ooxml in my favorite it-news portal.
    Later, when some irregularities occured, I took a closer look at that campaign.
    It was about firms which claimed what great success ms-ooxml is to their business.

    You’ll find my whole research in german here: http://forum.ubuntuusers.de/topic/111288/45/ (Posting 1, 7 and 9 on the page from the alias ‘user unknown’).
    To give a short abstract:
    Just one of the more than 100 Partners from the campaign had some information, related to ooxml on its website.
    The rest seems to be just hot air.

    I could translate the text to english, in the quality you see here, if you are interested.
    But note – those partners where not involved in the voting process, so it’s just a side note for the case.

    • Sorry, that was me, who wrote the above text.
      Forgot to login.

      • Thank you very much for the information.  I’m currently trying to sift through an increasing wealth of information that people are offering to me and trying to decide how much data, and which data, to fit in.  I’ll let you know if this would fit into the evolving story line.

          –  Andy

  12. Intro:
    "… open formats are needed to safeguard our culture and our history from oblivion."

    Oblivion is a bit strong. Even if there were no other evidence than electronic files in proprietry formats, some text is recoverable from those. In reality there is also paper, film, artefacts, etc.

    "… like Ogg Vorbis, or more prosaic ones, like MP3 (both open formats), as well as the proprietary formats that Apple uses to create its popular iTunes."

    Whilst technically open, MP3 is patent-encumbered. Also, why no mention of WMA?

    "Each time one of these new storage formats (physical and then virtual) had came along, the old one became obsolete.  Within a matter of years, new music couldn’t be purchased in the old format at all.  Anyone that wanted to upgrade their equipment while preserving their existing investment in the old format needed to keep their old player in good repair, or else laboriously transfer their old albums, song by song, to the new format, losing fidelity in the process."

    Obsolete is a bit strong. Deprecated, maybe. Vinyl is still going strong amongst DJs, although declining rapidly. Record players still sell in sizeable numbers, mostly to "audiophiles". Cassettes are still for sale too, mainly in the audio-book market.

    Some people "laboriously transfer", many just re-purchase in the new format! (Yet others download, and just retain the original format as proof of ownership).

Comments are closed.