Setting a New Standard

Recently, there’s been a great deal of hand wringing over the possibility that Microsoft’s Office Open XML document format might be ratified as an ISO standard.

The OOXML standardization critics point out that an ISO standard for office documents already exists, in the form of the already-ratified OpenDocument format, and that the existence of multiple overlapping ISO-standard document formats would be confusing and costly for governments, companies and individuals.

The critics also have pointed out that the specification was crafted by Microsoft not as a standard but as a means simply of representing its legacy office file formats in XML, and doing so in a way that wards off rival format implementers by including various Office and Windows dependencies.

Without question, OOXML falls far short of being a universal office document exchange format. Considering Microsoft’s enormous backward-compatibility commitments, I’d go so far as to say OOXML’s own authors would probably agree ODF would be a superior format on which to base a new application.

Now, does OOXML really "deserve" to join the ranks of 16,000-plus existing ISO standards? Probably not. But, to paraphrase a favorite movie quote of mine, I suspect that in matters like these, deserving sometimes has nothing to do with it. In this situation, I don’t think it matters much, anyhow.

For one thing, I’m fairly certain that ISO rejection of OOXML will not prompt Microsoft to adopt ODF for Office. I’m also pretty confident the lack of ISO certification for OOXML would do nothing to dissuade current Office users from continuing to run the suite. Microsoft’s Office franchise has been doing rather well without standards-body-recognized formats so far, and many believe that even without specs, the popularity of Microsoft’s formats render them standard enough for government work already.

What’s more, with or without the ISO’s blessing, OOXML is substantially more open than are Microsoft’s legacy binary formats.

As a user of on Linux who works in a mostly Microsoft-formatted world, I’m somewhat of a stakeholder in the ODF-vs.-OOXML horse race, and I’d like to see take advantage of this marginal boost in openness. In particular, I’d like to see vendors and projects that back ODF and Open­ attack the OOXML spec’s 6,000 pages that Microsoft has offered to standardization bodies and do so with less focus on teasing out ISO inadequacies and more on identifying methods for improving support for Microsoft’s legacy Office formats.

As for government lobbying, ODF supporters would do better to encourage governments to ensure future document accessibility by archiving documents as PDFs–a format that Office, and any applications with printing capabilities can target equally well.

Given the level playing field of PDF, all comers–be they ODF, OOXML or neither–can be judged not on their format alone but on the mix of functionality, platform support and cost that best matches the task at hand.