I’m tempted to say it is providential, except that I know the difference between “providence” and “serendipity.” This weekend a friend was telling me about Vern Poythress‘ article on Microsoft. I promised to look for it (and blog about it) but forgot.
But look at this headline from the top of Google News’ tech section: “Microsoft loses vote on file standards.”
This weekend’s vote by national standards agencies from 104 nations did not provide the two-thirds majority needed to give Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT – news – people )’s format the ISO stamp of approval. But they will meet again in February to try to seek a consensus, and Microsoft could win them over at last.
ISO approval for Microsoft’s Open Office XML would encourage governments and libraries to recognize the format for archiving documents, which in turn could help ensure that people using different technologies in the future could still open and read documents written today in Open Office XML.
Approval of its system as a standard would also help Microsoft tamp down competition from the OpenDocument Format, created by open source developers and pushed by such Microsoft rivals as IBM Corp. (nyse: IBM – news – people )
Massachusetts state government stirred huge interest in the matter when it advocated saving official documents for long-term storage in the nonproprietary ODF format. That prompted Microsoft to seek recognition of Open XML by the global standards body.
The company has offered to license Open Office XML for free to anyone who wants to build products that access information stored in Office documents. It claims the format is richer than ODF because, being based on XML computer language, it can store the layout of spreadsheets and legal documents created with Office 2007.
But Shane Coughlan of the Free Software Foundation Europe, a group of open source developers, questioned whether Open Office XML would truly live up to its name and be open to all. Coughlan said it was unclear whether some of the code requires Microsoft’s permission to be used.
‘It is important that everyone owns their data, that access does not depend on any one company,’ he said. ‘Any serious corporation or government should be dubious about using it if the legality is unclear.’
Publishing an open standard means it will be available to everyone, a sort of Rosetta stone that makes sure the key documents of today _ whether they be legal texts, novels-in-progress or accounting spreadsheets _ don’t become unreadable hieroglyphics to future generations.
Let me just say: I don’t hate Microsoft. I think they have spread computer ownership and use. I think that Vista is actually cool (though I’ll bet all the fun could be had for an almost XP size).
But, while I’m open to correction, I think we should automatically assume that MS has a proprietary plan for their proposal until we are totally sure that we have made such a thing legally impossible.
With all that background in mind, here is Vern Poythress’ article, “Digital Ethics and File Formats,” which, as it happens, was updated for the current situation only fifteen days ago.
Here’s a major portion:
When we share files as email attachments or post files at a website, the format becomes an ethical issue. Few people in the Third World have sufficient wealth to afford Microsoft Office easily. Still less can they afford to keep buying multiple versions of Microsoft products as the formats change. Sharing files in secret formats effectively excludes these people from the information process, or else makes them pay a “tax” to Microsoft for obtaining information that should be freely available. Moreover, even outside the Third World, among wealthier nations, some people do not wish to support Microsoft Corporation, because they think it is arrogant and prone to use monopolistic practices. It is not courteous to send people files in a secret format that implies that they should support Microsoft.
Gradually, through hundreds of hours of work, programmers outside of Microsoft have decoded large parts of the secret formats. That has enabled programs like OpenOffice to read from these secret formats and write to them. But because of the secrecy, the exchange between formats is still not absolutely perfect. Pressure is therefore still in place to buy Microsoft products in order to access the secret formats.
In Microsoft Office 2003 there is a new “.xml” format available for Word and for Excel. (There is no new format for PowerPoint.) This format is easier for other programs to understand. Office 2007 has similar, but not identical, formats.
Office 2007 finally has publicly specified formats for most of its pieces. Moreover, Microsoft has posted on the internet a promise concerning open use of the Office 2007 formats.
But the future for Microsoft formats is still under discussion. Here is one evaluation that is less than encouraging:
In other words, even though the MS XMLRS [the new specification for Office 2007] may be fully unencumbered through patent grants and a convenant not to sue, a number of the features and functions that the MS Office applications implement remain proprietary, private, and are not available for implementation by other developers.
The litmus test to apply is whether, even in theory, a competitor could develop an application that implements the entire set of features and functionality represented in the current MS binary format or MS XMLRS, in a platform independent manner and without infringing on MS intellectual property. We believe such an implementation is not possible, thus necessarily limiting the fidelity of MS binary to ODF conversion. (from Andy Updegrove, quoting from Sun Microsystems)
As of Dec. 5, 2006, one may see a more positive evaluation from Stephen J. Vaughn-Nichols. The situation continues to change. Eventually, open programs for translation between Microsoft Office 2007 formats and other formats may be available. But they will necessarily be incomplete, because not everything is publicly specified in the new Microsoft formats.
For the time being, I have decided to wait to see what works out with respect to the Microsoft formats. Meanwhile, the international standards body OASIS has officially approved the “open document” formats, and they have become an ISO standard. These formats have no encumbrances. Moreover, they can be read by the OpenOffice program, which is available for free. The program is guaranteed to remain permanently free because the code is freely available and is freely modifiable under a generous license. For further discussion, see the Wikipedia article on OpenDocument, and its subsection under “Licensing.”
(By the way, I just started dabbling in StarOffice which is now free through the Google Pack. So far I am really impressed with the Word Processor, which has options I have not seen since I finally gave up my WordPerfect Suite and joined the MSOffice hegemon on both PCs and Macs [Full disclosure: the Mactopia MSOffice has always worked well for me too].)
In any case, it is pretty clear from the article that Microsoft is not giving up their quest:
Despite losing the initial round of voting with ISO, Microsoft was confident of future success, saying many of the ISO members that did not vote for the format said they would do so when certain criticisms have been addressed.
‘This preliminary vote is a milestone for the widespread adoption of the Open XML formats around the world for the benefit of millions of customers,’ said Microsoft’s general manager for interoperability, Tom Robertson. ‘We believe that the final tally in early 2008 will result in the ratification of Open XML as an ISO standard.’
According to ISO, Microsoft had 53 percent of the votes in favor _ instead of the 66 percent it needed.
The ISO process is essentially a debate that tries to fix outstanding problems so a format can win sufficient support. But Coughlan said Microsoft’s heavy lobbying for Open Office XML had showed that ISO selection needs to be reviewed to make sure one voice could not shout louder than others. Coughlan and others have alleged that Microsoft unduly influenced the industry committees that advise national standards bodies on ISO votes.
An allegation that sounds so plausible, I really don’t think it needs to be argued.