Microsoft tripped en route to world domination (and dev doom)

What, me worry? It's Wednesday's IT Blogwatch: in which Microsoft encounters trouble getting Office Open XML ratified as a standard. Not to mention 101 ways to know your software project is doomed...

Eric Lai reports

An esoteric but key U.S. technical standards committee decided last week not to endorse Microsoft Corp.'s Office Open XML document specification, increasing the odds that the U.S. will vote against approving Open XML as an open standard next month at an ISO standards body meeting. An endorsement by V1, the technical committee that advises the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards (INCITS), which represents the U.S. on this issue in the ISO, would have required a vote of "approval, with comments" from two-thirds of the 26 voting members.
Open XML's approval as a standard is considered key to helping Microsoft maintain its better than 90% share among some half-billion productivity software users worldwide. While Open XML -- which is built into Office 2007 -- is freely licensable by others, Microsoft maintains that it wants to keep the specification separate from the OpenDocument format in order to speed development of new collaboration features and maintain compatibility with old Microsoft Office documents.
In March, the ISO agreed to put Open XML on a fast-track approval process that will see a vote by ISO's 157 member nations. That's despite lingering opposition by representatives from a number of countries who argue that the Open XML proposal conflicts and overlaps with a previously established standard -- ODF -- and is poorly written and technically unsound. [read more]

IBM's Rob Weir adds:

The result is that V1 will report out a large list of technical comments for consideration by INCITS, but will not report a consensus position on this controversial ISO "Fast Track" submission.

An important factor in the V1 vote was the large number of members who joined very late in the process. At the start of the year, V1 had only 7 voting members. But by Friday's meeting V1 had 26 voting members. There was a clear pattern in the voting where the long-time V1 members voted for the "Disapproval, with comments" position as well as "Abstention, with comments" while the newer members voted overwhelmingly "Yes, with comments" and against "Abstention with comments." This is not surprising since the new members were largely Microsoft business partners.
Note that this is not the final step in developing the US position on OOXML. The next step will be for the INCITS Executive Board to review the comments V1 has generated, and then to determine the US position via a 30-day letter ballot. That, followed by a possible 10-day reconsideration ballot, will take us to the September 2nd deadline. [read more]

Michael Calore speaks plainly:

If Rob's reporting is true ... Microsoft is trying to seed the vote for standardization of its file format. [read more]

But Microsoft's Doug Mahugh scoffs:

It's hard for IBM to convince everyone that the spec can't be implemented when there are people sitting at the table who are making their living doing exactly that, implementing Open XML solutions from the spec.

Ah, for the good old days of spring, when many of the [committees] had nobody in the room who had actually worked with Open XML, and cheap stunts like bringing in printouts of all 6000 pages could draw naive gasps. "You mean I'd have to read all that to create a document? Oh my God!"

Sun's Jon Bosak made a surprising statement:

We support [Open XML] becoming an ISO Standard and are in complete agreement with its stated purposes of enabling interoperability among different implementations and providing interoperable access to the legacy of Microsoft Office documents.

Sun voted No on Approval because it is our expert finding, based on the analysis so far accomplished in V1, that [the spec.] as
presently written is technically incapable of achieving those goals. [read more]

Sam Hiser tells us that it's not just the US committee:

BSi is the organization responsible for setting British technical standards ... In no field like the Standards field, as reflected in the work of BSi, is the British tradition of independent-minded adherence to common sense more palpable. The BSi have been for the better part of this year -- like many ISO-designated committees of National (standards) Bodies around the world -- trying to figure out what to do about Microsoft's document format, OOXML.
Our friends have looked with acute mind as closely as any group and have come up with a very detailed list of features lacking in the OOXML specification ... they have identified aspects of OOXML which Microsoft (Microsoft posing as Ecma) will need to change in order to become accepted as an ISO standard. [read more]

And Paulo Pires reports from Portugal:

Recently a Portuguese group was established to serve the same purpose, to determine whether OOXML shall become an ISO standard or not and not surprisingly Microsoft did their homework and got not only the president seat but also half-a-dozen partners “inside” of it.

If you thought this was funny check this out! Apparently this bunch-of-impartial-tech-companies has rejected a proposal from Sun Microsystems (Portugal) to become an active part, arguing that “there are no empty chairs in the room used for the meetings”. H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S!! [read more]

Meanwhile, Nick Farrell is watching Microsoft:

Vole watchers might be curious about the clever backflips the creature has been performing over the last few weeks over the OpenDocument Format. In its latest manoeuvre, it has offered the claw of friendship saying that it would back ratification of its own Open XML format along with (ODF) as ISO standards. However, the policy document penned by Volish general managers Tom Robertson and Jean Paoli said Microsoft will only give its blessing if ODF promotes choice among the world's consumers.

Yep, Vole is claiming it is a poor struggling company being stomped on by these nasty open saucers who hold a monopoly and are trying to squeeze it out of the market ... you need to have some serious psychological projection problems to think that the ODF could kill off Vole's lucrative Office product.
This month Microsoft has been trying to show how friendly it is to the ODF by instructing its new Linux chums Novell, Xandros, Linspire and Turbolinuxto come up with some conversion software between OpenXML and the ODF. [read more]

The European FSF calls it a, "Hoax":

Here is the problem: If these converters were actually able to do what they promise to do, they would be unnecessary.

When the standardisation effort around Open Document Format (ODF) began, Microsoft was invited to participate, and chose to remain silent. Although people implore them until today to join the global standardisation effort, Microsoft does not contribute its ideas and suggestions to the multi-vendor Open Document Format. Instead Microsoft focusses on MS-OOXML, which it promotes on the grounds of technical superiority and wider range of features. But if Microsoft's claims to technical superiority of MS-OOXML over ODF are true, how could one ever be converted perfectly into the other?

Microsoft maintains that while it would have been easy to support the Open Document Format (ODF) natively, it had to move to MS-OOXML because this was the only way for them to offer the full features of its office suite. But if Microsoft itself is not able to represent its internal data structures in the Open Document Format (ODF) in its Microsoft Office suite, how could an external conversion program from MS-OOXML accomplish this task?

The answer to both questions is that it is not possible because two things cannot be the same and different at the same time. If the two formats could in fact represent the exact same data, there would be no reason for MS-OOXML to exist. And there would be no excuse for Microsoft not to use ODF natively for its office application. [read more]

And kebes finds the silver lining:

The good news is that if Microsoft is changing their tactics, it means that they are admitting (partial) defeat in their previous attempts. Essentially they have lost the technical argument ... So they have a new tactic. This tactic basically amounts to saying: "Let's just have both standards, and let people pick the one they want. Oh... did we mention that OXML will be the default in all of our products?" Moreover, they are strongly implying that ODF is a lame duck, and that OXML has "more features" and is "richer." They are trying to paint ODF as the poor-man's format, with OXML being the format you use when you're serious.

The bad news is that this tactic will probably work. If OXML is the default format (in the dominant Office suite), people will view it as being the "serious" one and anything else as being "dumb." It doesn't matter that the additional "richness" is a bunch of features that these users will never activate. It also doesn't matter that the additional "richness" won't be maintained cleanly across platforms, during filetype conversions, and possibly even across software version changes. All that matters is building mindshare that truly believes that OXML is "the real deal" and that anything else is "that weird thing that geeks use."

So the counterattack from those of us who would prefer a true standard (such as ODF) to become the default need to use ODF as much as possible, and encourage others to do the same. ODF is the one that guarantees readability into the future, and that guarantees interoperability. We need to make this clear to everyone else. [read more]

Buffer overflow:

Around the Net Around Computerworld Previously in IT Blogwatch

And finally... Is Your Project Doomed? [warning: naughty language]
Bonus-oldie-but-goodie link: Charlie and Candy Mountain [more like acid mountain]

Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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