Breaking free of the politics

It’s good to see the latest news out of Malaysia, where they have decided to take a step back from the previous rush towards mandating ODF. It was clear that many of the anti-OpenXML folks out there were pushing too hard on the process and were actually “attempting to short-circuit the normal consensus process for adopting a document standard.”

I understand that it’s easy for people to get emotional on this topic, and some folks out there have unfortunately done an effective job of polarizing the debate. They want to frame it into a black vs. white issue where you have to choose sides. Sam Hiser of the Open Document Foundation often refers to his group as the noble rebellion who are fighting against the evil empire (he actually declared war on me last month). This type of approach doesn’t help anyone though, especially when you’re trying to work through the technical issues and actually build something. Here is some more information from the article on this issue:

But the ODF supporters chose to ignore the dissenting voices in committee, as well as objections raised in the public responses, to push through approval of ODF by a two-thirds majority, Ariffin said.

This is a process not provided for by ISO guidelines, he said.

He believes that these parties within TC/G/4 had become proxies of international bodies with a business interest in promoting ODF and shutting any competing document format out of the Malaysian market.

The OpenXML format would have been affected had the ODF supporters been successful in their bid.

I’m really glad to see this move, and I’m hoping we’ll get back to discussing the technical facts. Doug Mahugh has a great post talking about this particular story, and some of the exaggerations you’re seeing from the anti-OpenXML crowd.

Last week, I actually got a chance to meet with Dinesh and Yusseri who both write on the Open Malaysia blog and we had a great conversation. It’s always rewarding to me personally when I’m able to sit down with folks on either side of the debate and talk about the technical facts rather than all the politics. We talked about the history of both Open XML and ODF first, which I think really helped to frame the discussion. Prior to that, they had been under the impression that ODF was already a ratified standard before we started working on Open XML, and they didn’t understand why we created something new. After understanding the history though, it was clear why we have both standards, and how they were actually developed in parallel (one in Microsoft Office and the other in Sun’s StarOffice). Another issue I think that many folks weren’t aware of was how little participation there was in the ODF standardization process leading up to version 1.0 (only two people attended more than 75% of the meetings). It wasn’t until after that that you saw the participation really pick up (and all the marketing/promotional groups formed). We also discussed the reason why the Open XML spec was so large. There is a ton of functionality there, and it’s important to fully document it (for example, there are 300 pages just for spreadsheet functions). Even if something isn’t used frequently by our customers, it’s still important to include it in the spec. Remember that we have over 400 million customers, and the 80/20 rule doesn’t really apply (20% is 80 million people).

Dinesh and Yusseri seemed like really sharp guys, and it was a great conversation. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk, which was unfortunate, but in the small amount of time we had I think we covered a lot. I hope that we’ll get more chances in the future to sit down and continue the technical discussions, which are far more important than the political ones.


Comments (21)

  1. digginestdogg says:

    "Ultimately, it is up to the general public and users in both the public and private sectors to decide which format they want to use," he said.

    So continuing the doc format equivalent of the tower of Babel is a good thing to him. He needs to look up the definitions of the words standard and interoperability and think about why they benefit users.

    I can see why you are happy Brian–since MOOXML will be the default save format once Office 12 achieves wide distribution, not mandating any standard ensures the default save format, MOOXML, will be the standard in Malaysia.

    No worries though for two reasons:

    1. they’ll pirate your company’s software even more given how expensive it is

    2. they do a lot of business with China and will be doing more and more. And China won’t be using MOOXML. They have a backbone.

    BTW, I call it MOOXML because it is important for everyone to remember one one vendor created it, owns it, and is now extending it via new features in their IDEs.

    "One format to rule them, one format to find them, one format to bring them all and in the darkness bind them."

  2. Ian Easson says:


    I read the Open Malaysia blog you linked.  It seems that you still have some educating to do with them, because they are of the opinion that:

    1) All Microsoft had to do was to extend the ODF spec, and that would have been fine for Microsoft Office,and

    2) OpenXML as a document format cannot be decoupled from Microsoft Office, i.e., used without it.

  3. Fernando says:

    Brian, let’s be fair. Sam Hiser not only declared war on you, but also compared your comments about a peaceful coexistence of formats to ones from a German Nazi.

    And to think he is a VP of the OpenDocument Foundation! In a sense he is the best argument against the idea that IBM is investing big bucks in ODF. If it was true, they would have hired people far more professional than him and the unbelievable Gary Edwards.

  4. Dinesh Nair says:

    Hi Brian,

    Yes, thanx for taking the time to meet with us last week. The discussion was, as you say, productive in that we understood MS’s motivations behind OOXML. In referring to the article about the SIRIM CEO however, you’re missing one important bit of information: The role which was played by the Microsoft representative on the committee to stall ODF’s adoption as a Malaysian Standard. I raised the very same issue with Sam Ramji, and his assertion to me was that it has not been Microsoft’s policy to block ODF per se, but rather, Microsoft sees this as a business competition issue between themselves and IBM. I still can’t reconcile this with what has actually transpired in the Malaysian standardization process.


    My statements about what you’ve said were made directly after a conversation with Bill Hilf during the Microsoft Technology Summit last week at Redmond. It was Bill who noted that a lot of what MS Office requires is inherent within the OOXML document format, leading me to question if the format was inseparable from the software itself.

    Moving forward, like Brian, I am open to further discussion on this in the interests of harmonizing standards and making easier for the consumer.

  5. Anon says:

    With friends like Sam Hiser, OpenDocument doesn’t need Microsoft.

    I think "breaking free of the politics" is possibly an in-apt title for this incredibly political blog post, though.

  6. hAl says:

    I hadn’t noticed the comments by Sam Hiser before.


    It is shocking that that is the kind of people the open source community puts in charge of it interest groups.

    To compare Microsoft the the WWII Germans in Dresden is truly a ridiculous statment from coming from the Open Document foundation. It is offincsive to a lot the Germans of whom a lot of civilians were killed in severe bombings on the city and it is offensive to Germany because it implies some sort of comparison with the Nazi’s.

    Truly a horrible statement for a public figure in OSS who if I would have any influence I would chuck out of my organisation. Some things just cross a line you should never cross !!!

  7. Andrew says:

    How do you sleep at night?

  8. marc says:


    Microsoft’s top executive compared Linux to a "cancer" … unbelievable too ! 😉

    Regarding the Hiser comment ( or better: the comment who someone signed Sam Hiser ): IMHO is simply a response triggerd by a excesive level of hypocrisy and PR blah blah in some Brian’s posting … nothing else.

  9. It’s odd that most of you latched on to Brian’s mention of Hiser’s "That’s German wishful thinking in the middle of the Dresden firestorm" regarding peaceful coexistence; that is, let’s just add MS-OOXML as an ISO standard and Microsoft will shutup. Microsoft had every chance to have input into the development of ODF but refused. Why?

    Twenty of the thirty JTC1 members objected in some form to MS-OOXML, yet ISO fast-tracked the enormous spec anyway. The only political arguments being made are from you, Microsoft. Or have you so conveniently forgotten Massachusetts so quickly? The problem with MS-OOXML now will still be a problem five years from now — only MS Office will use it, period. Whereas open source and ODF will continue its encroachment in more and more applications, especially on the web. It’s just ironic to see a company that reminds us at every turn that they have 400 million users and billions and billions of documents out there worried about a "standard" when they keep claiming they’re the standard!

    Thus, your words betray your actions. Revisit Sam Hiser’s blog and read why having one standard makes sense. You can argue that MS-OOXML should be that standard, but if so, you’re making his argument for him. ODF on the hand, is vendor-neutral, not tied to any corporation, and therein lies the rub.

  10. says:

    Thanks for all the comments folks. I’m sorry I’m so much slower with replies lately. I’m spending the majority of my time helping to get my team spun up working on Office 14, so I haven’t been able to focus on the blog as much.



    I agree that there are a number of ODF zealots out there who really make a ton of noise and cloud the real discussion. It’s a shame, because I actually have had some great discussions with people who actually work on the products like OpenOffice. When you talk with technical folks, they are able to actually look past the politics and really just focus on how to get things done, which I find to be much more rewarding.



    I’m sorry that I don’t really know much behind the Malaysian discussions. Our meeting last week was my first exposure to it, and I’m sorry if the discussions really have become as messy as you point out.

    Let me know if there is anything I can do to help out.



    Like I mentioned to Fernando, there are some zealots out there who are really more anti-openXML than they are pro-ODF. It’s really a shame as the discussions with these folks are never productive. Often Sam Hiser has left comments on this blog talking about how much he hates OpenXML. Everytime I ask him to give an example though of something he’d like to see changed, he either drops off the discussion or replies without providing specific examples.



    You’ve seen that ODF and OpenXML were both developed in parallel (one by Sun, one by Microsoft). They clearly had different design goals, and ODF would not have worked as a default format in Office.

    If you really think there should only be one standard, who makes that decision? Who should pick that one standard? Is that a replacement for other formats out there like HTML? Or is someone also responsible for properly defining the space that ODF fits into and why HTML documents are in a different space. It seems like a very limiting view (and kind of stuck in the past).

    I’m not sure how you got the impression that OpenXML was only supported in Microsoft products. There is support for .docx on Mac thanks to NeoOffice. There is support for .docx on Linux thanks to OpenOffice. Corel has already stated that later this year they will have full OpenXML support. Apple worked on the Ecma technical committee and we expect to have something from them come out. Sun has engineers working on better OpenXML support in OpenOffice’s Calc application. MindJet built OpenXML support into their MindMap tool. The list goes on and on.

    So, that being said, is there something else you are looking to see added to OpenXML? Do you have any specific problems with it, or is this more of a philosophical discussion?


  11. Sam Hiser says:

    You guys make me laugh.

    Brian, your impulse to distort my comments reveal as much about you as my initial statement.

  12. says:

    Sam, what have I distored? Please help me clear it up.

  13. Stewie says:

    Isn’t the real purpose of an open standard to help the consumers? By that, I assume you must make it easy for developers to use the standard to help consumers.

    It has been my observation that MS isn’t actually interested in the consumer so much as controlling the consumer; this is clearly a valid concern with the new standards issue. Is it really about making a better standard, or is it all about dominating and winning the battle?

    Funny also, how I found this blog by clicking on an add on google that said "linux" and underneath was a link to Microsoft and then there was nothing about Linux there.

    I agree with what the anonymous person said; this is purely political, from the very start of the article.

  14. Stewie says:

    By the way, have you ever heard of WordPress? It’s totally free. Thousands of cool themes to choose… you should totally check it out.

  15. says:


    The whole point of our progression towards XML formats over the past 4 realeases of Office was that we wanted to make it easier for developers to build solutions on top of our files. The more people that can develop on top of our files, the more valuable our files become. The more valuable the files are, the more valuable Office itself as a platform becomes.


  16. Sam Hiser says:


    Since you asked…

    Microsoft has a commercially bellicose culture. You’ve more common sense than to deny it, given what’s in the public record from Halloween, DoJ, EU and now e-mails dribbling out of the Comes v Microsoft case.

    You and the MOOXML Irregulars (Mahugh & Kitterman, in particular) have expressed surprise, befuddlement & bewilderment about being blind-sided on the ISO fast-track opposition. I found that mildly amusing.

    The innocent Germans in Dresden must have felt the same way; wondering what on earth could have made the RAF so incredibly mad.

    I did not use the N-word because it doesn’t directly apply in this comparison — which is of a certain surprise borne of willful ignorance. It’s nuanced, I’ll give you that.

    And, yes, we and the forces of Democracy, fairness & common sense are going to keep the pressure on your company to deliver document formats that work with applications properly in the way prescribed by the Internet.

    Just because you’re losing the war doesn’t make is less one. Although I can empathize with your desire to disassociate with the history of your company and its approach to competition — at a time like this.

    Look, you’re a technician — I appreciate that; but the world, the customers, are articulating requirements and your company’s strategists are persistently changing the topic of discussion. The things you are working are not in demand. You may be powerless to change that now, but the market will be forcing you to change what you will be working on soon…which will be integrating the many Microsoft applications with ODF — v 2 or 3, depending on how long you persist in that state of bewilderment, whether it’s sincere or put on.

    Formats are political. Documents are political. Records are political. Speech is political. Budgets are political. Healthy markets for software products are political. The free flow of information across different systems (not just Microsoft’s) is political. Real interoperability, therefore, is political. Pretending they’re not means I can’t help you until you help yourselves by getting real.

    When you say stop the politics it’s like saying let us continue to stall by re-directing the conversation away from the inconvenient truth that Microsoft needs time to re-"format" its product catalog. From Vista to VSTO, the catalog just got out the gate and it’s already obsolete because it works around a set of formats no body wants. The catalog was conceived in an era before people could speak openly or intelligently about GUID, WMF, XPS and other things which used to be private — unquestioned in privacy. It’s not acceptable to work that way anymore.

    Quite frankly, I shouldn’t be wasting our time with all this, but you and I will probably be working together in the not too distant future.

  17. Francis says:

    Ooh, working on Office 14! -I can’t wait to hear the details, whenever they are finally released (or leaked.)

    A thought: have you given any consideration to moving Publisher to Open XML? At the least, that would improve compatibility between Word and Publisher (which is sorely needed.) If you could figure out how to use one file format for both programs, you could reuse a lot of code, effectively turning Word and Publisher into different frontends (UIs) for the same rendering/editing engine. Such a hook-up would be a a document editing powerhouse–and totally blow InCopy and InDesign away.

  18. How could anybody know Vonnegut, his history, his books and write that nonsense?

    btw, what really irritates me in the news from malaysia is the sentence "Once the dust has settled, he said, Sirim would appoint new members to the evaluating committee and begin the process again."

    There are millions of dollar spend for a format discussion in a land where government’s objective is to become a fully developed country by 2020.

  19. Ghibertii says:

    Microsoft breaking free of politics? that is humorous. Check out the story from Florida yesterday:

    Brian an engineer like yourself may be able to step away from the politics but the company you work for now keeps its monopolies alive by "working" within the system.

  20. Sorry I’ve been offline for the past couple weeks. I’ve been meaning to post some content for awhile