Microsoft OOXML: Dead Format Walking

When Microsoft, some time in the first half of 2009, makes good on its recent pledge to roll full support for the Open Document format into a second service pack for Office 2007, my reaction will be, “It’s about time.”

In the meantime, we’re left to ponder why Microsoft has changed its mind about embracing ODF, and what the change will mean for the organizations and individuals that create and consume office productivity documents.

Microsoft is citing customer demand to explain its change of heart. While I doubt that many customers asked for ODF in particular, it’s clear that there’s sufficient demand for better document format standards in general. Microsoft believed that it could satisfy these demands by crafting its own format, and by pushing it through the ISO standards process.

It seems, however, that Microsoft has underestimated not only the amount of work required to forge its own alternative to ODF, but the relatively small return on investment that the Redmond giant has managed to enjoy for its Office Open XML efforts so far. By shipping an Office 2007 product that defaults to a brand-new XML-based format, Microsoft has managed to annoy a broad swath of its customers without appeasing the subset who are calling for open formats.

For the majority of customers, who don’t particularly care about the new format, the switch to OOXML means jumping through hoops either to reconfigure its Office 2007 installations to default to Microsoft’s binary Office formats, or to install add-on software to OOXML-enable previous Office versions.

Here I’m reminded of Office 2007’s other major feature, the Ribbon interface, which requires users to change the way they work in order to push more Office features to the surface and make it clearer to everyone what great value they’re getting out of running a fat-client productivity suite.

For the customers who do care about open formats, OOXML does not–and probably cannot–fit the bill. The version of OOXML that ships with Office 2007 is not even the same version of the format that’s managed (through much controversy) to earn ISO’s stamp of approval. Indeed, the differences between the on-paper OOXML and the one that lives in Office are great enough that Microsoft has stated that Office won’t support the standardized version of OOXML until the next iteration of Office ships, at a date that remains to-be-determined.

Since most Office users would be happy to continue using Microsoft’s old binary formats, and since those for whom open standards are important would probably prefer ODF or PDF formats anyhow, I won’t be surprised if OOXML quietly dies before that future Office iteration ever sees the light of day.