Whatever Happened to OOXML?

Remember Office Open XML – a name chosen to be as confusingly close to OpenOffice XML as possible – better known as OOXML? Remember how just over a year ago this and many other blogs and news outlets were full of sound and fury, as OOXML slouched its way through the ISO standardisation process, finally staggering across the finishing line at the beginning of April 2008? I certainly do, but it's extraordinary how things can change in a year.

A year ago, the fear was that if approved, OOXML would simply tap into the momentum behind Microsoft Office's earlier formats, and become the nominally “open” standard used by all. To prevent this, people around the open source world mobilised against OOXML at the ISO, and nearly succeeded in blocking its progress. Only Microsoft's huge resources enabled it to use the ISO machinery to get its seriously inadequate format approved.

But then a funny thing happened: nothing. As if exhausted by the effort of squeezing through proverbial eye of a needle, OOXML just fell off the radar. I've come across few references to it in the previous 12 months. Indeed, about the most important announcement I've seen is the following, from Microsoft itself:

Today the availability of Service Pack 2 (SP2) for the 2007 Microsoft Office system was announced. The service pack includes major performance enhancements for Office applications, most notably Microsoft Office Outlook, as well as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server. One big benefit is SP2’s boost to interoperability — with this release, Office supports additional built-in file formats such as PDF and ODF.

There's also a very revealing reply to a question posed in the same Microsoft document:

PressPass: Why did Microsoft put so much effort into supporting those other formats?

Liles: Our customers have complex needs that no single vendor can address, so we need to be collaborative with the rest of the industry and make our products as interoperable as possible. At Microsoft, our approach includes open protocols, APIs, published documentation about our implementation of document-format standards, and built-in support for the widest set of document formats in the industry. This approach allows customers to choose the best document format for the job at hand.

In addition to the support for additional file formats, SP2 also includes the Open XML Format External File Converter. This allows developers to make any third-party document format a first-class citizen in Office. This means Office will support most government-preferred formats, and can easily be made to support any others that come along.

Interesting to note here the insistence on interoperability, open protocols and collaboration – words more often found in the open source world, but ones increasingly adopted by Microsoft in its attempt to harness all the good vibes they generate. Also significant is the mention of “government-preferred formats”; I think this shows that one of the primary reasons OOXML is not taking off – and ODF is – relates to the increasing number of governments that have adopted the latter.

This means that Microsoft cannot simply ignore ODF, because it runs the risk of cutting itself off from a significant and growing proportion of the public sector market. This also explains why it is adding ODF support with the new Service Pack, as described above.

All-in-all, I think things have gone much better in the office sector than I or many others feared when OOXML gained its "approval" from ISO. OOXML has not caught on, and there is every chance that ODF will become a widely-used national and international standard.

Follow me on Twitter @glynmoody.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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