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Standards debate starts again

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Analysis Microsoft's decision to release the XML file formats planned for the forthcoming Office 12 for ratification as official standards has generated a lot of chatter and opened an old debate. What do the standards mean and can Microsoft be trusted?

Microsoft followed Monday's news by promising on Wednesday it would not seek to enforce claims over any of its patents contained in the specifications.

For conspiracy theorists and industry veterans alike who are familiar with Microsoft's ways, the announcements seemed to represent the turning of a new leaf at Redmond. Finally, Microsoft gets the idea of openness and "royalty free."

Or does it? As ever with Microsoft nothing is quite as it seems.

Microsoft already uses XML formats in Office - they are called Office Open XML - which have been made available on a royalty free basis for some time. Office Open XML has been available under the same royalty free license used for the Office 2003 Reference Schemas released in November 2003.

The existence and licensing terms of those formats, though, has failed to appeal to a growing number of vendors and customers. Government organizations from Vienna to Boston and beyond are adopting office suites based on the OpenDocument Format (ODF) while vendors spanning IBM, Sun Microsystems, Intel, Google, Nokia and Red Hat plan to promote ODF through fresh work at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

The reason? Microsoft's XML failed to meet many governments' minimum requirements, such as allowing any supplier to implement the specification. That was a major problem for those in government, especially those running certain open source software, as Microsoft's license forbids use of its XML with GPL programs.

This happens because Microsoft picked XML to establish Office as the window into your corporate data and turn Office into a business intelligence front end, rather than facilitate interoperability with rival desktop suites. XML replaces hairy old Office binaries that simply did not scale. XML scales better when it comes to, say, allowing the exchange of data between Excel 12 spreadsheets and Microsoft's SQL Server database, so customers can share and consolidate data.

By submitting the XML formats to the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA), Microsoft hopes to contain the rising threat from ODF and ensure Office 12 joins its predecessors on governments' procurement lists. It is unclear, though, whether "royalty free" means the formats can be used with GPL.

Microsoft's decision to work through ECMA, and ultimately the International Standards Organization (ISO), is also a critical choice. Microsoft last turned to ECMA in 2000 and 2001, when it submitted the then-new C# programming language and Common Language Infrastructure (CLI) - a multi-language, Java-like virtual machine.

The relatively unknown ECMA provides a fast track to the ISO, which is recognized by governments worldwide. Microsoft admitted it turned to ECMA to tackle what it called an "image problem" over lack of standards support and to guarantee that C# and the CLI would evolve steadily and wouldn't take radical shifts.

There are concerns, though, that despite ISO's profile it's suited more to guidance rather than enforcement of standards. Sun claimed it killed plans to put Java through ISO because it lacked the financial muscle or commitment to enforce compliance. Microsoft's implementation of C++, meanwhile, has been at variance with the OSI C++ standard until recent efforts by Microsoft for greater compliance.

This hints at a further problem. It's one thing for Microsoft, or any vendor, to have its technology ratified as a standard, but it's another thing when that vendor actually implements that standard. It's the tweaks, extensions and "enhancements" for the vendor's platform that ensures departure from the "official" standard.

In the case of Office, which is the de-facto desktop productivity suite, Microsoft has the power to ensure that whatever tweaks it adds also become the de-facto standard.

More details are needed about Microsoft's latest standards work in order to satisfy skeptics and silence conspiracy theorists. In the following months, it will be vital to know how much of the Office 12 file formats will actually be contributed to ECMA, how far Microsoft will add its own tweaks to the official standard when it delivers its own implementation of the ECMA standard, and whether the file formats can run on GPL.®

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