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Two Sides of the OOXML Coin

Maybe it's because I'm a middle child in an angry, Irish family, but I've always played the role of diplomat. Whether it's soothing tempers around the dinner table or hoping to find common ground in a heated political discussion, I'm not one to admire intransigence.

So imagine my dilemma covering the ongoing push to make Office Open XML (OOXML) an ISO standard. After talking to some of the brightest minds in the industry, I've come to an unsatisfying conclusion: Smart people can, and often must, disagree. And sometimes, they must disagree violently.

Which helps explain the invective coming out of the open source and OpenDocument Format (ODF) community this week, in the wake of the April 1 announcement by the ISO that OOXML had, indeed, won approval as a standard.

Sun's Tim Bray, who represented Canada in the ISO Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM), wrote in his blog back on Feb. 29 at the conclusion of the BRM session:

"The process was complete, utter, unadulterated bullsh*t. I'm not an ISO expert, but whatever their 'Fast Track' process was designed for, it sure wasn't this. You just can't revise six thousand pages of deeply complex specification-ware in the time that was provided for the process."

His subsequent essay offers a more balanced perspective, though his criticism of the technical product remains.

Meanwhile, guys like Mono Project founder Miguel de Icaza praise the technical worth of OOXML and earn a firestorm of scathing critique from open source advocates. Andrew Brust, an RDN contributor, Microsoft regional director and chief of new technology at consultancy twentysix New York, said of the process that Microsoft was forced to counter targeted opposition from competitors and open source advocates.

"I think the worst you can say about that effort was that it was necessary to make the vote fair, and it was unfortunate that the OOXML standard could not be judged exclusively on its technical merits," Brust said. "Were it judged that way, without the politics, I think it would have won approval [in the first round of voting], and done so with much less rancor."

OOXML has passed muster in the ISO, and Microsoft is, predictably, calling for people to set aside their differences in the ratification process and move forward. But with the European Commission looking for signs that Microsoft abused its monopoly position in the ISO process, and the real possibility of an appeal being filed, it's clear that the healing process may take longer to start than even a diplomat like myself might hope.

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Posted by Michael Desmond on 04/03/2008 at 12:53 PM

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Reader Comments:

Fri, Apr 4, 2008 Michael Desmond Anonymous

Great feedback. I want to delve a bit further into the point that Andrew Brust made to me the other day, over dinner at the VSLive! conference. Because his contention--that Microsoft is simply fighting back--is not unique to the Redmond PR machine and it definitely has some merit.

The fact is, the standards battle is happening (still) at many levels--technical, economic, political and philosophical. What's more, Microsoft is facing off against a broad front of ODF/open source/anti-MS players, which means you have a lot of different interests at play here.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Microsoft is right to push what amounts to a straight-up serialization of the Office binary formats as a standard. But I am saying that the opposition to OOXML is driven as much by ideology as it is by technology. Sun, IBM and Google are all key opponents and are all well equipped with global resources to take the fight to Microsoft. And Microsoft is more than willing to fight back.

Andy Updegrove, no friend of Microsoft or OOXML, made the case to me as part of a story we did on the MS interop pledge. His direct quote: "Let me begin by saying, in standards and vendors there are no white hats and black hats. IBM is not doing what it's doing to save humanity, and Microsoft is not doing what it's doing to subvert humanity. It's being commercially anthropomorphic to assume anything else."

Brust, I think, is making the exact same argument--albeit from the other side of the battle front. The result, of course, is the world-spanning, standards-making knife fight we've all enjoyed for the past several months.

At the end of the day, it's the duty of the ISO to craft ballot structures that prevent outright manipulation and chicanery. But right now, the way the process works with far-flung lobbying occurring in an unmanaged way at the nation level, there's really no protection at all. And global firms like Microsoft and IBM and Sun are able to engage these geographies directly, and fight the fight block by block, be it in Germany, Japan, Cuba or Trinidad & Tobago.

-- Michael Desmond

Fri, Apr 4, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous

"Andrew Brust said of the process that Microsoft was forced to counter targeted opposition from competitors and open source advocates."

What the...? Which alternative reality is this you're living in?

Fri, Apr 4, 2008 Dunstan Vavasour Great Britain

It would have been nice if OOXML could have been judged entirely on its technical merits. But by submitting it for a fast track process, Microsoft chose specifically to prevent such judgement and examination. And instead of considering the 3000 plus comments received (which were de-duplicated down to about 1000), they chose to continue the fast track process, which is exactly the #opposite# of judging on its technical merits. How Andrew Brust sleeps at night after spouting such disingenuous drivel is beyond me.

I can understand your inate desire to be even handed, but it is not appropriate in this case. To have submitted a 6,000 page specification with a single closed implementation for standardisation is perfectly legitimate. To submit it for the fast track process, where technical examination is effectively by-passed is wrong. To manipulate the International Standards process to deliberately prevent such examination is corrupt.

Thu, Apr 3, 2008 Dave Anonymous

I it a very sad tale you tell. But the problem is it does not ring true.

I don't know if you have noticed the new interoperability campaign going on in Microsoft. It is kind of big.

Microsoft just had on opportunity to demonstrate it's newfound attitude of togetherness through the DIS29500 acceptance process.

But, when it came down to the wire, Microsoft just could not do it. So they reverted to forcing their view on others.

There is not going to be a healing process. Microsoft has made their bed now they have to sleep in it.

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