George Bush IS President And Microsoft’s Office Open XML Format IS An ISO Standard

On 2nd April 2008 the IT Week magazine described how “Microsoft’s Office Open XML document format standard has been approved as an ISO standard” in an article entitled “OOXML gets the nod as an ISO standard“.

Everyone who has been critical of Microsoft for continuing to promote its proprietary Office format should be pleased with this news, one might think. And indeed an editorial comment in the same issue of IT Week a piece entitled “Microsoft wins format standards” suggested that the “ISO vote endorsing OOXML ends vicious committee wrangling“. But the article admitted that the “decision means that there are now two ISO document standards“. And further “Supporters of the rival Open Document Format claimed OOXML is not truly open because it was not designed by an open process“. In addition they also suspect “Microsoft will find ways to retain control“.

Rowan WIlson on the JISC OSS Watch blog elaborated on these concerns: “the perception that OOXML is in itself an inadequate standard which has triumphed through Microsoft’s expertise at lobbying ISO member bodies for their votes“; “the standard is itself is incredibly long and complex – over six thousand pages” and “Microsoft’s patent non-enforcement promise that accompanies [the standard]“. Similar concerns are described in a Wikipedia entry on OOXML.

But do such criticisms mean that we should not make use of OOXML? I would say not. If you believe in open standards, then you should be prepared to accept standards which have been ratified by a formal standards body. Just as when George W Bush first became president, despite the concerns regarding the voting process and allegations of corruption in certain states, the Democratic party was prepared at accept this decision.

The criticism that “there are now two ISO document standards” misses the point that duplicated standards are not unusual, as the joke “the great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose” illustrates. Indeed, readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the RSS 1.0 and RSS 2.0 – not two versions of the same standard, but two different standards – RDF Site Summary and Really Simple Syndication Standard (to say nothing of its original name Rich Site Summary). The battles which have taken place over this popular syndication format seem to be typical of the standardisation process in the IT sector. So we should not be surprised to read of dissent in the document format area.

I suspect that a lot of criticism of the standard is really aimed at seeking to persuade organisations that they shouldn’t be using Microsoft Office products. But that, I feel, is a different argument. Rather I’ll leave the final comment to Richard Boulderstone, the chief technology officer at the British Library who has welcomed OOXML’s approval as an ISO standard, as the establishment of an open well-defined OOXML standards will ensure documents can be viewed through future applications: “We think hundreds of years in the future, by which point this standard won’t be supported anymore. But we’ll be able to create an application to views these documents as they’re based on an open format. Under the closed proprietary format previously used by Microsoft we couldn’t do that.“. Amen to that.


  1. Hmmm. This article has somewhat conveniently or naively ignored many of the technical problems with OOXML that have rendered it almost completely useless which has in turn led to the recent announcement by Microsoft themselves that they will be implementing native ODF support in Office 2007 rather than their own OOXML. (Why: Too hard? Too rubbish? Nobody wants it? The EU told them to do it?. Who knows…)

    It also ignored that fact that there is a formal complaint now issued against the ISO for the approval process by the South African NB and here in the UK, the BSi is facing a Judicial Review due to the complete “about face” they made in the last week before the voting closed and that was plainly inconsistent with their own policies prior to their change of heart.

    Also note the number of other countries around the globe that have been implicated in very dubious decision making practises.

    Also note that the EU are investigating Microsoft yet again and in one area specifically as to their ramming of OOXML through ISO.

    Also note that the UK Government’s BECTA education advisor that has instructed schools NOT to use OOXML as it does not improve interoperability. And have referred Microsoft to the OFT for their monopolistic practises.

    Also note that Microsoft’s OSP which claims to lift any burden of Patent Infringement from implementers of their standard will not allow products to be distributed under the GPL which would exclude such shining examples of Open Source software as

    Oh yes. The British Library is in Microsoft’s pocket so I would take any announcement from them with a big pinch of something white and powdery – it was probably written for, or paid by Microsoft’s PR machine anyway. Several of their senior staff have a long history of very close Microsoft relationships… Although, seeing how Microsoft have just announced that they have dumped their effort to digitise public library books, including those from the British Library, perhaps Adam Farquhar might not be so happy to be their puppet any more.

  2. As “The Open Sourcerer” says, you seem to have missed some rather fundamental issues surrounding OOXML. If the OOXML standard stays as it is, I think it’s extremely unlikely anyone could implement an implementation 100% or even 80% compatible with MS Office. Probably far,far less if you’re using esoteric things like, oooh, Excel.

    ODF seems, very simply, to have undergone a better standards process. It’s not as broad in scope, but what it does allow actually *can* be implemented in a near-100% compatible manner. I don’t think anyone would care nearly as much if OOXML was actually any good, and hadn’t strong-armed the entire standards process. If the co-author of XML calls the proces “complete, utter, unadulterated bullshit”[1] then it seems to me as though the quality of all future ISO standards is in doubt.

    It may be a standard, but it seems like some are more standard than others.

    (p.s. isn’t RSS Really Simple Syndication?)


  3. Thanks for the comments.

    The main point I am making is that the move by Microsoft to document their file format and to make this available via ISO is better than was the case previously.

    I am not saying that the standard is necessarily a good standard or that it is easy to deploy. But we need to remember that other standards which have been ratified by open standards bodies such as ISO may also be flawed. What we need is a better way of critiquing open standards and deploying them: previously when Microsoft were criticised for not using open standards we heard little of the limitations of open standards – we should now be in a better position to have a more open debate on the limitations of open standards.

    PS oops, I’ve corrected my error in giving the best know expansion of RSS – Really Simple Syndication.

  4. I don’t think it’s the standards that are an issue with OOXML (although there may be debate around that aspect), it’s the processes.

  5. I’d also contest your first statement

    “the move by Microsoft to document their file format … is better than was the case previously.”

    Is an unimplementable, non-interoperable standard file format better than a proprietary one? I’d say it’s actually worse because it conveys to businesses that “open source/standards/whatever” are actually a step backwards and they’d be better staying with their nice friendly, closed, formats and software which at least *work*. In fact I’d say it puts us in the same situation as HTML ten years ago – a set of common implementations but with varying details requiring reverse engineering to emulate the “de facto” standard (which for OOXML is Office).

    Of course, even MS Office doesn’t actually implement the OOXML standard, so hey ho, what does it matter anyway?

  6. Hi Phil – That’s an interesting comment: “a nice friendly, closed, formats which works” is better than an “unimplementable, non-interoperable standard file format”.

    I don’t know if that’s true, or if I agree with it – but I’m glad that you’ve raised this as a legitimate issue to be discussed. Previously open standards were often perceived as a good thing, full stop.

    From a long-term preservation point of view I suspect that archivists may argue that a documented open standard is a good thing, and this was the point made by Richard Boulderstone. But, as you say, if the standard isn’t actually going to be used, does it matter?

    Now how many other open standards are there which sound great in theory, but aren’t being deployed to any significant extent?

  7. “The main point I am making is that the move by Microsoft to document their file format and to make this available via ISO is better than was the case previously.”

    I hope you realize that if you are asked to back this statement with something factual, you are in deep shit.

    The situation regarding the documentation is exactly the same it has ever been :
    – piece of document available. It implies Microsoft does not want you to implement it fully, otherwise they would provide all of it.
    – documentation that was never thought to be distributed to the public. Rather, these are internal documents that were brought together. Microsoft was taken by surprise : when they started this work on the next version after Office 2003, they did not anticipate ODF would go that far and be mandated by governments. So the whole Microsoft ISO thing is a reaction, not something that was intended to begin with.
    – documentation that one may want to call a reference documentation especially if the source code that accompanies it is in the hands of the developer. Unfortunately, only Microsoft people can do that. For everybody else, the lack of actual explanations and algorithms ensures intense and long reverse engineering sessions, as it has been the case with binary formats.
    – binary formats not gone. Who thought Microsoft would rev BIFF (Excel format) to v12 and still clam 100% XML? Completely contradictory.

  8. The list goes on and on. More info on my blog OOXML is defective by design.

  9. Hi Stephane – for the sake of completeness, I’m linkiing to your most recent blog post.

    I notice in your post that you said “Microsoft won. They wanted the ISO timestamp. They got it. They needed it since governments (and the EU) want such thing for documents now.

    This very much reflects the sentiment of the title of my post “George Bush IS President And Microsoft’s Office Open XML Format IS An ISO Standard”. We agree that Microsoft won, and that reflects the views of (typically) government bodies rather than software developers – the former seem to be willing to accept political fudges and complexities; software developers tend not to.

  10. No, Microsoft’s Office Open XML Format is *not* an ISO standard.

    A hacked about version is proposed as a standard although the pending appeal puts it on hold; but Microsoft have now announced (a) support for ODF and (b) that they will not support the ISO proposed version of MOOXML until the next version of Microsoft Office. The latter being exactly the kind of “technical” information that government bodies better understand before they consider adopting it. Or even talking it up as a good thing.

  11. Hi Chris, Thanks for the comment. As you say, and according to Wikipedia (on 27 May 2008):

    Office Open XML (also referred to as OOXML or OpenXML) is a free and open international standard for representing electronic documents such as spreadsheets, charts, presentations and word processing documents.

    An amended version of the format, ISO/IEC DIS 29500 (Draft International Standard 29500), received the necessary votes for approval as an ISO/IEC Standard as the result of a JTC 1 fast tracking standardization process that concluded in April 2008 [4]. However a formal protest was filed in May 2008 [5] by the South African Bureau of Standards, meaning the standard will not become ISO/IEC 29500 unless and until the appeal has been resolved.

    From the above it would appear that OOXML was an open standard in April, but now isn’t!



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