Open letter on Open XML


There’s an open letter to the community on the Microsoft interop site today that acknowledges some of the tactics that have been used to try to limit choice in document formats lately. As the letter says:



When ODF was under consideration, Microsoft made no effort to slow down the process because we recognized customers’ interest in the standardization of document formats. In sharp contrast, during the initial one-month period for consideration of Open XML in ISO/IEC JTC1, IBM led a global campaign urging national bodies to demand that ISO/IEC JTC1 not even consider Open XML, because ODF had made it through ISO/IEC JTC1 first – in other words, that Open XML should not even be considered on its technical merits because a competing standard had already been adopted.

This campaign to stop even the consideration of Open XML in ISO/IEC JTC1 is a blatant attempt to use the standards process to limit choice in the marketplace for ulterior commercial motives – and without regard for the negative impact on consumer choice and technological innovation. It is not a coincidence that IBM’s Lotus Notes product, which IBM is actively promoting in the marketplace, fails to support the Open XML international standard. If successful, the campaign to block consideration of Open XML could create a dynamic where the first technology to the standards body, regardless of technical merit, gets to preclude other related ones from being considered. The IBM driven effort to force ODF on users through public procurement mandates is a further attempt to restrict choice. In XML-based file formats, which can easily interoperate through translators and be implemented side by side in productivity software, this exclusivity makes no sense – except to those who lack confidence in their ability to compete in the marketplace on the technical merits of their alternative standard.

I’m glad to see us publicly acknowledging this situation. While everyone at Microsoft has consistently been saying that document formats are not a zero-sum game, IBM has been trying to sell a “battle” between different approaches, based on the assumption that if you’re a fan of one format you must be an enemy of other formats. I’ve even heard of an IBM employee saying to a Microsoft employee “detente is not an option, this is war!” Good grief. How Presidential.


It seems that people are starting to grow weary of the tone and tactics being used to oppose Open XML, though. For example, I received an unsolicited email from a stranger recently which included these comments:



We have been working with the Open XML spec throughout its existence in readiness for our new major release of our product … our product has over 400,000 users worldwide … we can vouch for the fact that you do not have to implement the whole spec when creating a product that can read and write OpenXML spreadsheets … I am getting sick and tired of this religious spec warfare, especially the argument that if you don’t implement the whole spec, it’s not worth doing.

Me too.

Comments (12)

  1. Sean says:

    "we can vouch for the fact that you do not have to implement the whole spec when creating a product that can read and write OpenXML spreadsheets"

    while we don’t have as broad as a user base, I can vouch for this fact as well.

    "I am getting sick and tired of this religious spec warfare, especially the argument that if you don’t implement the whole spec, it’s not worth doing. "

    Well said.

    Props to those who are at the front lines of the effort…

  2. Stephane Rodriguez says:

    Doug,

    You owe your readers a little more credibility.

    Last week, when I asked you to name two products that render Office 2007 documents, you were not able to answer. Yet, this does not stop from saying that big bad IBM is going to kill innovation. Huh. That makes no sense whatsoever.

    As for your reference to that stranger email "e can vouch for the fact that you do not have to implement the whole spec when creating a product that can read and write OpenXML spreadsheets", I think s/he makes the point pretty clear, and a serious reader will see through the shit.

    1) a vendor can only implement a subset of what it takes to instantiate Office 2007 documents because the ECMA 376 is just a fraction of the actual document.

    2) reading and writing is the easy part. What about rendering? If we are talking about a competitive space in the Office suites, don’t you think those suites have to render something, not just read and write?

    And when it comes to rendering, we are back to having to reproduce 15 years of Microsoft Office legacy.

    Come on, that’s getting a bit old.

  3. Stephane Rodriguez says:

    Also, my respect for you as greatly diminished when I see you feel no qualm reproducing BS like "those who lack confidence in their ability to compete in the marketplace on the technical merits of their alternative standard" while the reason Microsoft is going ECMA then ISO with their thing is for business reasons, not technical reasons.

    As for the competition space, I will remind you just two things, among a sea of bad things Microsoft did to others recently:

    1) Microsoft licensed the Ribbon UI and made it explicit that no vendor competing in the Office suite space is allowed to get a license.

    2) CleverAge translator is a piece of shit, but that does not stop Microsoft from doing PR and claiming "seamless interoperability" and "interoperability by design". Oh, by the way, when I ask Brian Jones what he means by "complete", which is what he wrote on his blog, he can’t answer.

    What a load of BS

  4. Anonymous says:

    "… on Microsoft interop site today that acknowledges some of the tactics that have been used to try to limit choice in document formats lately"

    Kinda misleading, don’t you think?  "Acknowledge" is usually used to concede a point not making accusations!

  5. dmahugh says:

    According to my dictionary, the primary definition of acknowledge is "To admit the existence, reality, or truth of."

    Stephane, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  6. Stephane Rodriguez says:

    "Stephane, we’ll just have to agree to disagree."

    Wow, what an easy answer. Very Microsoft like. Enjoy your job there while you can.

    Would you mind disclosing whether or not Sonata software are paid by Microsoft in order to create a (false) sense of community over at openxmldeveloper.org ?

  7. Dean Harding says:

    > Last week, when I asked you to name two products that render Office 2007 documents,

    > you were not able to answer. Yet, this does not stop from saying that big bad IBM is going

    > to kill innovation.

    Er, how are those two things even related?

    Stephane, are you saying that because no other Office suite will ever be able to render documents like Microsoft Office does, they shouldn’t be trying to standardize the format?

    What’s so wrong about having two competing office document standards anyway? You don’t see people complain about the existence of JPEG, GIF, PNG, TIFF, BMP, etc, do you? They all represent bitmapped graphics…

  8. Stephane Rodriguez says:

    "Stephane, are you saying that because no other Office suite will ever be able to render documents like Microsoft Office does, they shouldn’t be trying to standardize the format?"

    Because that’s what it is about. If you can’t render, you can’t compete on the same playing field.

    If you can just read and write, you end up with stupid stuff like the CleverAge plugin. Just try it, you’ll understand the joke that it is to do just read and write. (of a very limited set of features of only Word documents)

    "What’s so wrong about having two competing office document standards anyway?"

    They are not competing. Microsoft Office format strategy is a platform strategy. It’s one-way only. If we take an example, a lot of business documents contain VBA macros, it’s not defined in the ECMA 376 paper, meaning that those implementing ECMA 376 can’t run, render, such document. Well, that pretty much defines a single vendor able to play, and a ton of external vendors who are just pretending to play.

    The reality is that there is ton of semantics that are written on the paper, that are left for one to discover. This means we are talking years about reverse-engineering, which is exactly the situation with binary file formats (which are not international standards).

    I’ll give you another example and then leave it at that. The new chart drawing engine. That’s undocumented. Sure, you can find some of the markup for DrawingML in ECMA 376, but that’s only an enumeration of things, not a true description of the semantics of those elements, i.e. how to render this stuff. It so happens that Microsoft changed the semantics with the chart drawing engine, even features that existed before. Just create a chart in a previous version of Excel, and then open it in Excel 2007. That’s not the same. How vendors are supposed to deal with this, since the changes are not documented?

    Just one example…

  9. Dean Harding says:

    > If you can’t render, you can’t compete on the same playing field.

    Fair enough, but it’s a red herring in my opinion. Whether Microsoft had chosen ODF or OOXML, the rendering engine would have been proprietary anyway.

    > If we take an example, a lot of business documents contain VBA macros,

    > it’s not defined in the ECMA 376 paper, meaning that those implementing

    > ECMA 376 can’t run, render, such document

    That’s a fair enough comment, but again it’s a red herring. Whether they’d chosen ODF or OOXML, VBA macros would still not have been included in the spec and so would be proprietary to Office either way.

    I think it’s a fair comment to make that the VBA should be standardized as well, but just because they’re not at the moment doesn’t preclude them from being so in the future, surely?

    Personally, it doesn’t really bother me either way. As far as specs go, I don’t believe OOXML is all that bad (though I haven’t read much of it). My main work is with SMS and if you want to read a horrible spec, look no further than that all of the GSM-related ones!!

  10. Stephane Rodriguez says:

    "I think it’s a fair comment to make that the VBA should be standardized as well, but just because they’re not at the moment doesn’t preclude them from being so in the future, surely?"

    This is the typical Microsoft party line, i.e. "we will fix it later".

    All that it is as a matter of fact is Fire and motion, and well described in a Joel Spolsky article that I recommend to read.

    Believe me, I am in this exact business for many years. (I sell related products, diffopc and xlsgen)

    The world we live in, months after the ECMA 376 specs have been made public, is exactly the same we would be living in if the specs had never been available at all.

    There is a huge trick which those not experienced enough in old trickery will not recognize. Let me spell it out for you (I already did in a previous comment on this blog) : Microsoft adopted the ZIP technique which allows anyone to crack-open such a file by hand (unless it’s password-protected). Then, you can very easily change things by hand or with simple code. But that’s it.

    To really do anything substantial you really have to understand the semantics of the parts, the markup, how everything works together. That’s what leads to the capability to run or render a document.

    Unfortunately, as will conclude anyone who would attempt to do exactly this, is that much of the semantics is actually not serialized in the markup, meaning that there is a huge gap that is left for reverse-engineering. And this situation is the one in which we are with the old binary file formats.

    Ironic, at best.

    The ECMA 376 specs change nothing to that. From Microsoft point of view, that’s how they are trying to get governments to sign up. The specs were not provided because Microsoft all of a sudden became an "open" company. That’s 100% business. And there are a ton of bad business practices that have occurred along the way since early 2005 alone. Just read Dan Bricklin’s blog, Andy Updegrove’s blog, Sam Hiser’s blog and Rob Weir’s blog.

    Microsoft strategy is to continue this long "Office as a platform" direction. Basically, MS Office is the only possible application/platform that work with such documents.

    Since the client strategy is getting a bit outdated, the world has moved online, they have updated the strategy by integrating client and server products, especially around sharepoint and the likes. None of the communication protocols between those products of the suite are documented. Meaning that any corporation buying this is effectively locked-in by a single vendor.

    Nothing new under the sun I am afraid.

    They can add all the angle brackets they want, that is just a smoke screen.

  11. Angus says:

    @Stephane:

    Your conflict of interest is patently obvious.  You accuse Microsoft of having ulterior motives, but I believe it is you that has a hidden agenda in discrediting OOXML.

    >Believe me, I am in this exact business for many years. (I sell related products, diffopc and xlsgen)

    Is your campaign aginst OOXML a means to protect your own comercial interest?  Your product "xslgen" is advertised as a toolkit to generate binary Excel files.  Unfortunately for you, OOXML makes your product obsolete because any programmer can generate XLSX files using ZIP and XML — technologies for which there are readily available libraries.  

    I’ve been able to generate spreadsheets and graphs using nothing more than .net framework and the ECMA spec.  Perhaps that explains why customers aren’t asking you for xlsgen for SpreadsheetML.  It’s because one does not need to buy a library for this purpose any longer. The raison d’être for xlsgen vanished as a result of OOXML.

    I do sympathize with your predicament, though.  You launched your product in 2003 (acording to your site), and you had a good run for a while.  You probably spent countless hours looking at a hex viewer and disassembling XLS files.  It’s too bad you didn’t anticipate Microsoft opening up the file formats for Office.  You weren’t the only one caught by surprise.

  12. Stephane Rodriguez says:

    "Your conflict of interest is patently obvious.  You accuse Microsoft of having ulterior motives, but I believe it is you that has a hidden agenda in discrediting OOXML."

    You think I, as an independent vendor, can derail Microsoft?

    " Perhaps that explains why customers aren’t asking you for xlsgen for SpreadsheetML."

    In fact no. Excel 2007 is not in their agenda at all, it’s too new. If you are really an Excel user, not just a troll, head over at dailydoseofexcel.com where real-world practitioners are coming with interesting feedback on clients willingness to upgrade.

    As for whether I am worried about the fate of xlsgen, it seems to me you have a poor understanding of what xlsgen does (hint: xlsgen understands semantics, not just read/write), and if I was worried I would not ship tools like diffopc which effectively disrupt the specs (i.e. make it easier for someone to write this stuff).