I’m sure most of you have had those annoying conversations with folks on a topic where that person views things in black and white. I definitely get annoyed when this pops up in politics for instance, and it’s often times insulting. Anyone with knowledge of the subject knows it’s never that simple, and when people talk it black in white you wonder whether they don’t have enough knowledge themselves, or if they aren’t giving you enough credit. Lately, I’ve seen this approach used in discussions around the file format, and it’s pretty annoying. For example, there are a handful of very vocal “anti-OpenXML” folks out there who would like you to believe that you have to decide to be either pro-ODF or pro-OpenXML. This is obviously a ridiculous point of view, because it leaves no room for those who are pro-XML formats in general.
I view myself as both pro-ODF and pro-OpenXML. I still remember when we were working on our XML formats for Office, and Sun announced that the next version of StarOffice was going to use XML formats as their default format. I thought this was very cool. We were working on WordML at the time, and I had spent a lot of time thinking about how we could transform WordML into other formats like HTML, DocBook, etc. I thought that the arrival of the StarOffice XML formats would be another example of how XML formats immediately raise the significance of Office documents. The only thing I was disappointed in was that the version of Office we were working on at the time (Office 2003) was only going to offer XML as an alternative format, and not the actual default. It wouldn’t be long though before we felt there was enough value that we made the decision to build default XML formats. I have a post here that goes through the history of both ODF and OpenXML for those interested: http://blogs.msdn.com/brian_jones/archive/2007/01/25/office-xml-formats-1998-2006.aspx
I know that a number of folks out there have thought we are anti-ODF because we don’t natively support the format in Office. I can understand why people have that impression. Microsoft is a big company with a lot of resources, so for many folks it seems like the lack of support for a technology implies there was a malicious decision to not support that technology. The thing you need to look at though is the entire ecosystem. There are a number of formats out there I would love to have native support for in Office. For instance, it would be cool if we had native DocBook support in Word, or XBRL support in Excel. At the end of the day though, we need to pick features that will have the most widespread positive impact, and allow Office to be extensible enough that 3rd parties can build the vertical solutions on top of it. There is no way we can build everything people request. Remember that we have 400 million customers out there, so even a request from a large organization can’t always be met directly. That’s why our partner ecosystem is so important. We often rely on those third parties to help tailor the product to meet the more specific demands of our customers.
Remember that ODF wasn’t even a blip on most people’s radar when we started working on Office 2007. It had been submitted to OASIS by Sun and was being worked on by a small group of folks. There were only 2 people who attended more than 75% of the meetings (Michael Bauer from Sun and Gary Edwards who was an independent). At the end of the day though, they pulled off some really great stuff, and it’s really a credit to them. They dramatically raised awareness for open formats, and XML. While ODF couldn’t work as the default format for Office, it definitely could serve as an alternative format if that’s what folks want.
When we made the decision to go with XML formats as the default for Office, I thought our biggest problem would be backward compatibility, and general end user pain. I never in a million years thought there would be folks who would actually claim the OpenXML formats weren’t open enough. I know there are folks who have a more religious view on what “open” means, but for me it’s pretty simple. There are a key number of things you want to be able to do with a format (as I described here). We’d had people for years demanding that we better document our formats, and the work we did for Office 2007 went so far beyond those folks were asking for. Not only were we going to fully document the formats, but we were going to switch into a format that was significantly easier to develop on (XML as opposed to the old binaries). Unfortunately a handful of the pro-ODF people out there feel that they also need to take the anti-OpenXML position. This isn’t necessary though, as OpenOffice, Corel, and Microsoft Office have all shown the move to support both.
So, the next time someone asks you if you’re pro-ODF or pro-OpenXML I hope your answer will be “yes.” I know mine is.