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4/9/2008
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Microsoft Wins The OOXML Battle ...

But the war over whether Office Open XML is a brave new standard or a sneaky bid for lock-in continues.

There's been some heated rhetoric: On April 2, standards organization Ecma International said that Microsoft's Office Open XML garnered positive votes from 75% of ISO/IEC Joint Technology Committee 1 members, making OOXML an official standard. However, opponents vow the fight isn't over. The European Union is investigating the methods Microsoft used to lobby for support, and some countries, including Norway, are crying foul. Serious technical concerns remain, including doubts over Microsoft's maintenance standards.

And much of the industry still cleaves to the Open Document Format (ODF) standard, which is supported by the OpenDoc Society and used in OpenOffice, KOffice, Google Docs, IBM Lotus Symphony, and other productivity suites.

THE LOWDOWN
THE PROMISE
Office Open XML is Microsoft's successor to its proprietary Office document format. It's touted as an international, open industry standard for word-processing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.

THE PLAYERS
Microsoft created OOXML and submitted it to Ecma International as the IT and communications standards maintainer. Oasis and the International Organization for Standardization are involved, as are a variety of vendors, including Apple and Novell. OOXML competes with the ISO Open Document Format, which is used in open source productivity suites.

THE PROSPECTS
On April 2, Ecma announced that it had received enough votes to approve OOXML as an ISO/IEC International Standard. Not everyone is on board, however: Appeals are expected based on allegations that Microsoft improperly influenced voting.
Undeterred, Microsoft continues with OOXML, saying the spec can co-exist with ODF while offering new features and beating ODF in document transparency and cross-platform interoperability, decreased file sizes, less chance for document corruption, greater compatibility, and easier integration with extant Office packages.

But the big question for IT is, when are too many standards not standards at all, but wholly differing and competing platforms that muddy the waters of document interoperability?

Microsoft representatives we spoke with stated that OOXML is designed to be backward compatible, thereby enhancing document preservation, and that it accommodates multiple languages and cultures and supports technologies that enable people with disabilities to use computing devices. Further, they say, the new spec allows data from other systems, such as health care and financial records, to be easily incorporated into documents and to be updated in real time, functionality not present in ODF.

NOT EVERYONE'S ABOARD
Still, not everyone is installing an ODF-to-OOXML conversion tool just yet. In particular, Google, a heavy user of ODF in its Google Docs Web applications, takes a negative view. "We believe OOXML would be an insufficient and unnecessary standard," says Zaheda Borat, open source programs manager at Google. Borat's argument is: ODF isn't broken, so why fix it?

Microsoft counters that multiple standards can and do co-exist, citing image formats, such as JPEG and TIFF, and digital video formats, such as MPEG-2 and H.264. In Microsoft's opinion, at least, that's proof that the computing environment can support multiple office document formats as well, all of which can be complementary as well as competitive.

Still, competing productivity suite vendors may be forgiven for pointing to Microsoft's past strategy of "embrace, extend, exterminate."

IT groups must be wondering if they should feel confident putting their most precious asset--corporate data--into OOXML.

Microsoft says yes, citing irrevocable, royalty-free patent commitments to all implementers of OOXML, which both Ecma and ISO/IEC say satisfy minimum licensing requirements. Any entity can freely implement OOXML, and in fact, Apple, Corel, IBM, Novell, Sun Microsystems, and others have already adopted, or announced adoption of, the spec on a variety of platforms, including Java, Linux, Mac OS, and Palm OS. Even Google supports OOXML, and Microsoft has funded an open source translator that's available at no cost and enables interoperability between OOXML and ODF.

That's the key phrase: "enables interoperability." Despite renewed interest in OpenOffice, Microsoft is still dominant, and the most widely used office suites, Office for Mac OS and Windows, already adhere to OOXML. Clearly, Microsoft has the tools and industry influence to get OOXML off the ground. Ultimately, it may be ODF that finds itself needing compliance.

OOXML Timeline

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