MS-OOXML: A format without a future?

Whatever the shortcomings of MS-OOXML, ISO ratification had its purpose, to gain acceptance for OOXML by governments, and maintain Microsoft's control of Office data formats. Governments recognise ISO standards. Recognition gives validation to the format, and even if it isn't fully implemented by any other vendor, Microsoft's dominance of the market ensures its marketability and protects Microsoft's monopoly. ODF threatens to open up the market for alternative office suites. Opening the Office market also opens up the market for the platform it runs on. Office is Microsoft's biggest earner. Office and Windows re-enforce a mutual domination of the office desktop.

ISO ratification was achieved at considerable cost. The reputation of the ISO was compromised, as was that of Microsoft. ISO ratification was achieved amid widespread allegations of misbehaviour and undue political influence, which was noted by the likes of the European Commission. Neelie Kroes, the EU Commissioner, recently said: "If voting in the standard-setting context is influenced less by the technical merits of the technology but rather by side agreements, inducements, package deals, reciprocal agreements, or commercial pressure ... then these risk falling foul of the competition rules."

The process has also adversely affected the work of the ISO. Martin Bryan, a senior ISO/IEC Convenor, who reported that the fast-tracking of OOXML "has made it almost impossible to continue with our work within ISO. The influx of P members whose only interest is the fast-tracking of ECMA 376 (OOXML) as ISO 29500 has led to the failure of a number of key ballots."

He concluded that "the disparity of rules for PAS, Fast-Track and ISO committee generated standards is fast making ISO a laughing stock in IT circles. The days of open standards development are fast disappearing. Instead we are getting 'standardization by corporation', something I have been fighting against for the 20 years I have served on ISO committees. I am glad to be retiring before the situation becomes impossible. I wish my colleagues every success for their future efforts, which I sincerely hope will not prove to be as wasted as I fear they could be."

Microsoft opts in

This does not bode well for the format as an implemented standard. It would be tempting to suppose that Microsoft has won the battle, but may well have lost the war. Certainly, the opposition has not gone away. There have been appeals against the ISO approval process from the South African, Brazilian, Indian, and Venezualan bodies, and until these have been fully resolved through due process there is no format that defines the standard, (although leaked documents show that the appeals are certain to be pushed aside, as Andy Updegrove explains). Microsoft has even volunteered to opt into the ongoing ODF development process which, not without reason, has aroused the suspicions of ODF proponents.

Many governments have resolved to go with ODF, come what may. As it stands MS-OOXML is known to have substantial technical issues that were not resolved, and in some cases not even discussed during the ISO process, and for this reason you would imagine that government agencies are unlikely to adopt OOOXML, whatever the positions taken by their national standards bodies during the ISO fast-tracking process.

If your purpose is to find a standard that is future-proof, relatively uncomplicated to implement, and ensures portability of documents, you will be inclined to choose ODF over OOXML, knowing also that you won't be locked in to a single vendor.

Sir Bill Gates

But that isn't the whole story. Judged by its technical merits, or common standards of interoperability and usefulness, OOXML is a dead duck. But Microsoft is first and foremost a successful marketing organisation with a long reach into government circles. For instance, in January 2003 the British government chose to make Bill Gates, who is neither a citizen nor a resident of the United Kingdom, an honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of his "services to global enterprise" and his "outstanding contribution to enterprise, employment, education and the voluntary sector in the UK" - despite the fact that at that time Microsoft was the subject of a long-standing investigation by the European Commission for monopolistic and anti-competitive practices, and had already been found guilty of similar practices in the US.

More than one commentator was reminded of the famous remark by Tom Lehrer, mathematics lecturer and sixties satirist, who said that "satire became obsolete the day that Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize." Nonetheless, Microsoft has been awarded priveleged contracts in the UK public sector, dealing with health and education, where performance has been less than satisfactory, even where there has been considerable evidence that open source solutions may be better value for the average citizen.

OOXML shouldn't succeed, for technical, political and business reasons. But no-one will bet their house on a logical outcome.