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On the Office format wars

Politics and ODF vs OpenXML

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Analysis The usual trouble with politics is that the people the process is supposed to defend are usually the ones to suffer most at the hands of those manipulating the political process. It looks as though this is the case in the arm-wrestling that is still going on between Microsoft and IBM and the standardization of OpenMXL and Open Document Format (ODF).

While the two main protagonists push and shove in their attempts to gain dominance (oops, probably a legally untenable word in this particular context) of the desktop office productivity tools market through gaining international standardisation ratification, the users are the ones who are likely to suffer.

The issue is, really, all about that `dominance’ word. Over the years, not least through expert marketing and business leverage, Microsoft has managed to get the Office suite to the point where it holds the largest share of the office productivity tools market by several miles. This has led some to pose totally valid questions about being locked in to a single vendor’s technology, which in turn has led to several competitors to emerge over the years, only to disappear and, finally, to the appearance of OpenOffice out of the open source community and the Open Document Format, of which IBM is major proponent.

The latter in particular has attracted the interest of a growing number of Governments concerned about the potential of having their own operations locked in to one vendor's technology, coupled to the fact that ODF was also ratified as a standard by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). For many Governments, that has proved to be the icing on the cake it deciding which choice to make for future office productivity tools.

It is fair to say that, for Microsoft, such a trend would if replicated across the globe, mean a significant loss of potential business. This is obviously a serious threat to one of the company's prominent revenue streams, which is why it is now working hard to get OpenXML also accepted as an ISO standard. It has already been accepted as a standard by ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association) and Microsoft is using its’ good offices as route through to ISO standardisation.

So much for the nature of the arm-wrestling: what of the users? It seems there are two aspects to this argument. The first is the blindingly obvious one that, regardless of what one might think of Microsoft Office – and Lord knows, some scathing words have been written about it over the years – it is one of the greater understatements of the year to say it is `widely used’. It is also widely known amongst the user base. People, even those with limited experience, can go up to any desktop system and start being productive.

From a users’ point of view – both the individual and the businesses they work for – that is worth real money. It is not technical pickiness that, when Microsoft changes something in Office, the loudest complaints are heard. Such changes can cost real money in lost productivity until the new tools and processes are learned. This is a reality that has to be accepted and catered for, which does not mean that OpenXML has a de facto right to be ratified as an ISO standard. But if politicking means that a large slice of the real world risks long-term disenfranchisement then it should at least be taken into serious consideration. But giving carte blanch to OpenXML standardisation runs the risk of official sanction for a single vendor lock-in which, understandably, would make many serious users twitchy.

The second aspect is the acceptance that a real world exists in this situation. Though Microsoft is the leading player it is by no means the only one, and if major users such as national governments are determined to specify something else then there is really only one choice – acceptance of the duality. In addition, the reality of such a situation demands the existence and acceptance of translation tools between the various standards. The fact is that users will need to be able to take file formats from one standard and translate them into the format they use. If they can do that, then the issues concerning technical standard disappear into the world of irrelevant, abstruse argument.

The existence of translators between OpenXML and ODF is already solved, just about. Novell has already announced just such a tool, and is likely to be the first of several. This is obviously the way to go. And if the `politicians’ ever stop for one second to consider the users rather than their own economic corners, they may ponder that agreeing on a standard for translation tools might be the much better target for their intellectual efforts. If such tools are standard, widely implemented and work, then who cares what technical approach is used by either party so long as it can be translated into the other format(s)? After all, it would mean they each could keep and develop their marketplaces, and it might even mean that, because making a choice to be forced on individual users was no longer an issue, businesses might end up buying more of everything.

And as usual in such circumstances, if one of the vendors comes up with a bit of new functionality then you can bet the other will match it soon enough – until they (or more likely the users) get tired of the functionality arms race – after all, how many people really use a purple wavy underline?

But then again, maybe they should just agree that Rich Text Format – which is already a standard – is the most sensible answer after all. But probably they won’t. ®

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