by Bernard Golden

Whither OOXML?

Opinion
Oct 26, 20074 mins
Enterprise Architecture

XML / JSON
Credit: Piyus Gghedia / Guirong Hao / Getty Images

Now that Microsoft’s attempt to ramrod its semi-open OOXML standard through the ISO standards body has fallen short, what happens next?

As you may have heard, Microsoft attempted to get ISO to adopt its OOXML document format as a standard via a fast-track mechanism. Despite its best efforts to obtain the necessary votes, the decision went against Microsoft, and ISO failed to adopt the standard via fast-track. Best efforts in this regard includes motivating previously-uninvolved nations to join ISO in order to be able to vote, and ballot-stuffing efforts to get enough members into already-existing national bodies in order to sway their votes. Despite all its efforts, Microsoft was not able to obtain the necessary votes.

Without rehashing all the technical arguments that have been raised against the OOXML format, which are quite serious, the question of the hour is “what will Microsoft do next regarding OOXML?” The next ISO activity is a Ballot Resolution Meeting (this blog posting is by Jason Matusow, Microsoft’s point person on document standards) at which the various comments can be reviewed and perhaps addressed in a way that the format would be approved as a standard.

Shortly after the vote, I spoke with Andy Updegrove, an attorney who works on standards issues (and is the author of the document linked to in the “motivating” link above). He believed that Microsoft was likely to put a big push on at the BRM to get the objections to the standard overcome and get OOXML approved as a standard. This makes sense; after all, if you’ve just spent time and money trying to get a document format approved, wouldn’t you go the extra mile in order to get it over the goal line?

Strangely, however, Microsoft appears to be soft-pedaling its own standard. At GOSCON last week there was a panel on document formats, with reps from IBM, Sun, Adobe, and Microsoft present. Each of the company representatives got to speak for five minutes and present his company’s perspective on document formats.

In his presentation, Matusow appeared to be backing away from OOXML as a key technology. If you look at the slide he presented:

MOSCON Slide: OOXML
MOSCON Slide: OOXML

you can see that the positioning now is that the tool is key, and the document format secondary, which, to my mind, is a bizarre assertion, although it’s one that aligns with a positioning that, above all, must keep Microsoft’s tools in a predominate position.

It appears to me that, having realized that the force-feeding of OOXML into an international standards body is problematic, Microsoft is now trying to present a soft TCO story which emphasizes sunk costs and pre-existing product versions as a reason to stay on the Microsoft path, along with an incomprehensible assertion that two document standards would be a good thing (this last is the most oddball position of all; how can anyone state with a straight face that the world would be well-served by having two incompatible editable file formats?).

The challenge to that vision is that it mostly works for countries and economies that already have a significant Microsoft installed base. For developing nations, the argument that they should hew the Microsoft line falls short since many of them are just coming to widespread IT use. As evinced by South Africa’s decision this week to adopt the competing document standard, ODF, these nations are unlikely to be swayed by legacy implementations of Microsoft products. Furthermore, if the document standard is non-Microsoft, then selecting the tool to work with the format is more likely to be driven by cost without introducing the complication of legacy support. As a consequence, this decision train threatens Microsoft’s ability to generate adoption in economies just beginning to move to widespread computerization.

Therefore, I expect that Microsoft will shortly recognize a need to gain acceptance for OOXML as an international standard, and we’ll see the soft TCO positioning put out to pasture in favor of a much sharper push for OOXML standardization — because only with OOXML as an accepted standard is the rest of Microsoft’s product strategy justified; absent OOXML as a standard, choosing Microsoft Office is a much less sure thing. So get ready for a blitz of lobbying late in the year and early next year about how OOXML really is ready to be an international standard.