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Microsoft’s OpenXML not all that open?

an image of the Microsoft logoMaybe I was too fair to Microsoft. When I first read about their OpenXML, I thought that maybe they’d turned over a new leaf.

I thought that we were going to see a more caring sharing side to Microsoft.

A new Microsoft looking forward, not backwards .. say, towards compatibility, for example.

“Bob Sutor commented IBM’s ‘no’ vote for the ECMA Office Open XML file format a month ago in his blog as follows: ‘ODF is about the future, Open XML is about the past. We voted for the future.’

What do I mean by this? This can be best explained by going back to the year 1999. At this time, OpenOffice was not yet existing, but I already worked on ‘StarOffice‘, that, as you know, was open-sourced in 2000 as ‘OpenOffice’, and is still available as Sun’s offering. StarOffice at this time had a binary file format like any other office suite, but we decided to create a new file format. Why? Because we wanted to make StarOffice, and later on, more interoperable, and we felt that just documenting the binary format would not be sufficient.

One design decision for the new format could be made fast. It should be based on XML.”

I have to confess, I really didn’t think that such things had been thought about at such an extremely early point in the game.

To put this in context, my own business had just been formed in June of 1999, and I was relatively early to the game.

“What are the benefits of this decision for users? Let’s assume we would have taken the binary formats and internal data structures as basis, as it seems to be the case for Office Open XML. Everyone who wants to work with our office documents on the file level then would have to deal with’s internal data structures. Everyone would have to deal with the multiple implementations and therefore file formats we have for some objects for legacy reasons. In short, our users would have to deal with our, the implementors, legacy or past. And not just a single time, but over and over again.”

Clearly that’s no good. What appears to be an ostensibly open format is one that is deeply tethered to the machinations of Microsoft Office.

Is this evidence of laziness or stealth? Maybe both.

Others are equally unimpressed, too:

“Here are some other examples of where the OOXML ‘Standard’ has bloated its specification with features that no one but Microsoft will be able to interpret: autoSpaceLikeWord95 (Emulate Word 95 Full-Width Character Spacing)

This element specifies that applications shall emulate the behavior of a previously existing word processing application (Microsoft Word 95) when determining the spacing between full-width East Asian characters in a document’s content.

[Guidance: To faithfully replicate this behavior, applications must imitate the behavior of that application, which involves many possible behaviors and cannot be faithfully placed into narrative for this Office Open XML Standard. If applications wish to match this behavior, they must utilize and duplicate the output of those applications. It is recommended that applications not intentionally replicate this behavior as it was deprecated due to issues with its output, and is maintained only for compatibility with existing documents from that application. end guidance]

Oh dear! The list goes on and on and on:

“So not only must an interoperable OOXML implementation first acquire and reverse-engineer a 14-year old version of Microsoft Word, it must also do the same thing with a 16-year old version of WordPerfect. Good luck.”

As strategies goes, it’s a poor one. For instance, when you have bad blood enemies like IBM wafting their eyes over these specifications, what on Earth did Microsoft expect them to do? Just ignore all of the legacy dependencies?

I’d call that laziness dressed up as stealth, but just coming over all stupid looking.

It’s worth reading through some of the points in the Rob Weir piece. I’m not that technically literate, but fortunately, the article is written well enough to be engaging to even the most light-headed tech’ reader:

“But evidently in the realm of standards there are no practical limits to the application of the above technique. It is quite possible to write a standard that allows only a single implementation.”

You couldn’t make this shit up if you had a week on an desert island in the Pacific and a crate of 10 year-old Whiskey…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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