More on Ecma Standard 376

I wanted to post a few links that were interesting from the news yesterday about Ecma approving the Office Open XML formats as Ecma Standard 376. I'm sure by now most of you have seen all the articles and blogs discussing this big milestone.

Clearly this is a great thing for the industry (unless you happen to be one of those folks who had investments in growing this myth that there was some kind of "file format war" underway). We now have an official standard that provides all the details necessary to read and write office documents. Of course for most solutions they will only need to leverage certain pieces of the standard, and not the whole thing. But for those that do want to build a full-fledged office suite, all the details about how to read and write the formats is there. The standardization process did two very important things. The first was that it allowed a group of experts from different areas in the industry (IT; archivists; software developers; hardware manufacturers) to ensure that the specification was fully documented and could work cross platform. The second was that the ownership and stewardship of the specification is now in the public's hand (and no longer owned or operated by a single vendor). This point could become even stronger once the Open XML formats have gone through their ISO submission. So now you have more choices available to you. Last year ODF was introduced as a choice, and this year Open XML is available as well. Remember, that just because something is a standard it doesn't mean you have to use it. It just means that if you want to use it, it's fully documented and available for use with no encumbrances. You know that a group has worked through it to ensure that there will be no barriers to implementation. That's the key that gives you the freedom to choose.

Here are some blogs and news stories worth pointing to:

Vive le Open XML Revolution

Doug Mahugh discusses an Open XML workshop that took place this week in Paris, where a collection of developers delved into the details of the Open XML formats, as well as the translation tools currently under development

More on the motivations behind IBM's opposition (hint: it's not about making the world a better place)

Yates said he does not understand why a large company such as IBM is at the forefront of creating conflict around the OpenXML format.

"They are also really focused on mandating ODF, mandating a single format that their commercial products support. This push to mandate ODF seems to be so antithetical to what they ordinarily talk about around open standards, interoperability and choice," he said.

Format approved as standard

Microsoft submitted the proposal with Ecma International, a Geneva-based industry group that establishes technical standards, and got backing from other players, including rival Apple Computer Inc. Ecma International announced Thursday its approval of Office Open XML as a standard, touting the step as vital for document creation and archiving.

BetaNews | Office Open XML Gains ECMA Approval; IBM Votes No

Sutor's claims run contrary to those of Ecma's Open XML white paper, offered to prospective supporters and the general public, well prior to today's vote.

"The interoperability of OpenXML has been accomplished through extensive contributions, modification, and review of the Specification by members of the Ecma TC45 committee with diverse backgrounds and corporate interests," the paper reads. "During preparation, committee members raised and resolved hundreds of issues regarding policy, clarity, semantics, and possible dependence on environment."

The paper goes on to list "specific areas in which OpenXML departs from the original binary formats for the sake of interoperability." Among them are the fact that embedded images may be of any type, embedded functionality is not dependent on any one programming language or runtime environment, and that embedded fonts utilize font metrics systems for determining the best available font on any user's system, when the specified font is not available.

Massachusetts to review the new Ecma standard

The Initiative for Software Choice, a trade association, hailed the ECMA approval. "There is no downside here," said Melanie Wyne, ISC executive director, in a statement.

"ECMA's action enhances document manipulation, interoperability, and archival storage for public and private institutions. The ECMA process also represents an important step toward expedited ratification by ISO, which will give governments and enterprises added assurance that Office Open XML meets the rigors of the evolving technological marketplace -- especially as it pertains to interoperability of documents between competing products," Wyne said.

Have a great weekend everyone


Comments (17)
  1. Adam says:

    "But for those that do want to build a full-fledged office suite, all the details about how to read and write the formats is there."

    Hmmmm…..I’d be interested in any counter-points you might have to the suggestion that this may be pretty unfeasible for anyone who doesn’t have a couple of million dollars in the bank, or a pre-existing implementation, as discussed:

    Technically open, practically useless?

  2. Adam says:

    Actually, I meant to include this one as well, as it has a few insightful comments (some are just zealous-anti-MS-ranting, but it’s worth reading for the good ones), and although you can get to it from the Bob Sutor article, it is a few hops away –

  3. Bill says:

    Adam:  Of course it’s unfeasable to write to write a full-fledged office suite without a few million in the bank.  With or WITHOUT support for OpenXML.  So what’s your real bitch?  That writing to a specification that is rich enough to handle the billions of existing word documents that currently exist is not a trivial undertaking?  Why would it be?  If someone had told me X years ago that MS was going to create an xml specification that would be able to accurately represent these billions of documents I could have told you then it would be extremely complex.  Common sense.

    Just because it is open does not make it easy.  It just makes it possible.

    Anyhow, it’s just something new to complain about, isn’t it?  OMPF M$ IS TEH SUX)RRS!!!

  4. Yuri says:

    "Remember, that just because something is a standard it doesn’t mean you have to use it."

    It doesn’t, until the claim that it is a "standard" is combined with a good amount of lobbying dollars to squish adoption of a truly free standard.

  5. Patrick Schmid says:

    The one person shop writing a full Office suite is just not realistic. To write a full Office suite nowadays, either takes the backing of some company or companies investing million of dollars, or a large open source community effort where developers invest an amount of time that would be equivalent to that.

    Most smaller efforts will focus on pieces of OpenXML, and probably for there purposes a few hundred pages of the spec (equivalent in size to the ODF spec) will be sufficient.

  6. Patrick Schmid says:

    I am reading that eWeek article (,1895,2070078,00.asp), and there is something rather interesting in there:

    "it will begin the fast track process for adoption of the Office OpenXML formats as an ISO international standard in January 2007."

    That could mean that in two months, OpenXML would be equivalent in standardization status to ODF. It would also shut up everyone who claims that Microsoft hasn’t documented everything, but retained some proprietary information (the usual slashdot conspiracy theories).

  7. JasonG says:

    I’m not sure why people are starting up this new meme of how unfeasible it would be for an independent developer to write an office suite that adheres to the Open XML spec.  Do people somehow not see that it would be unfeasible, no matter what the format is?  Have they ever bothered to ask themselves how many developer hours have gone into OO.o?

    In addition, I know I read quite recently about how the oXML spec is geared, such that an app can freely implement just parts of the various functionality.  For example, one could write a complient spreadsheet app that had no scripting or international support.

  8. Press release 9 December 2005 – Ecma International creates TC45 to standardize Office Open XML F TC45와의

  9. Dave says:

    The point of an open standard for saving and retrieval of documents is to make it possible to re-engineer the means to do so.

    To accurately represent any of the billions of future documents, the standard should be a very simple one so that such a task can be done cheaply and accurately.

    Also, there is no proof that Office Open XML can accurately represent the billions of existing Word documents. From one install to another of the same version of Word, formatting can change based on the local settings. How accurate is that?

  10. Jonathan Perret says:

    The Initiative for Software Choice, a trade association ? More like an obvious MS front group…

    Seriously Brian, I usually like reading your blog but did you think you could get away with this ? If I didn’t know better from the usual content of your posts I’d say you’re indeed no longer "in training to become a politician". Please keep your blog as honest as it usually is.

  11. Ghibertii says:

    You are correct, there is no format war underway because Microsoft just created the new format by default. And Brian you can’t tell me you are ignorant to the fact that most businesses and individuals rarely, if ever, change their computers from the default settings.

    As Jonathan posted above, try and continue to be honest with yourself and us, it is why I read your blog. I don’t want another fanboy reporting how everything MS does is altruistic. Open XML is about one thing, control.

  12. A says:

    Adam, were you arguing that the ODF format isn’t practically useless too?  I’m willing to wager that if you find two ODF viewers and open the same complex document in both, they will probably look different, even if it is just page breaking or line wrapping.  There is nothing wrong with the file format, it is more of a question of accuracy – was one implemented internally in twips and the other in pixels?  Was one using floats and the other doubles?  Rounding or truncation? Etc…

    I’ve always been confused about people’s worries about MS making a file format so complicated no one could support it.  The difficulty is not in the file format, after all we’ve managed to mostly figure out the binary version, the new XML is a breeze in comparison.  Its the actual rendering part that’s the problem.

    Take table breaking.  Exact height rows don’t split.  Empty rows don’t split.  Row that have Keep With Next in the first paragraph of the first cell don’t split.  Rows with the don’t split option don’t split.  There are probably cases I haven’t even figured out yet.  Now throw in vertically merged cells, images, and nested tables, and it starts getting nasty.  The file format has all this information easily accessible, it’s putting all the pieces together that’s a pain.  

    Obviously all that could be solved if MS just stored the split location in the file, but then it wouldn’t be able to adapt to changing fonts (that’s why we have PDF and XPS, different goals).

    So for both ODF and Open XML it is a case of you can do it if you want to, but no one said it would be easy.

    Personally, I like the move to Open XML, and just wish that people would stop squabbling over whether or not this was technically but not practically possible, when it was never really feasible in the first place – for either format.

  13. Fernando says:

    Brian, keep addressing constructive criticism, and ignore Rob Weir and the IBM FUD machine. His recent rants on the ECMA standardization process and on the size of the spec (!) have reached Gary Edwards-esque levels of delusion. No wonder he now censors blog comments.

    In the real world feedback from customers everywhere is being amazing, and OpenXML momentum keeps growing. Let ODF die peacefully while the world adopts a better standard.

  14. Someone correct me. Why, Brian, are you clapping loudly on OXML’s Ecma approval? Wasn’t this foregone, and the real goal is ISO? And why does Microsoft need ISO at this point?

    (I know the cursory reasons why, but really: why?)

  15. says:

    Zaine, I don’t see how the Ecma result could have been a foregone conclusion. There are 21 voting members in Ecma, and they all needed to decide whether or not they would approve the work of TC45 as a standard. It turns out that all but 1 approved, but that definitely wasn’t something we knew would happen until the end. So I, and everyone I work with in Microsoft as well as the folks on the TC45 were extremely excited last week. There are still a lot of congratulations going around. 🙂

    In terms of ISO, just like with the Ecma submissions, we’ve had a number of governments tell us that they would like us to take the Open XML format to ISO. So that was recommended by the Ecma TC45 to the Ecma General Assembly, and they voted to approve it for submission. It’s not a matter of Microsoft needing ISO, but instead it’s our customers in the community that want to see it go to ISO.


  16. Trusty says:

    IBM really came out the loser here.  I don’t understand the people who support them.  Would they really rather have a (choke, gasp) productivity suite from IBM, the company that has protected its the closed mainframe environment for 20 years from any kind of openness, standards or interoperability?  And you trust them after what they did to manipulate Sun on Java, just so they could take it away for free to use in WebSphere.  We’ve seen these tricks before.  

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