News Analysis

Open battle will boost compatibility

Jack Schofield, computer editor at The Guardian

One of the industry's current entertainments is the argument about office file formats. Microsoft last month voted in favour of ODF (Open Document Format) becoming an ANSI standard. This was one in the eye for ODF backer IBM, which voted against Microsoft's Open XML at standards body ECMA.

Microsoft can easily explain this: it is in favour of customer choice, whereas IBM is against it.

The reality, of course, is that Micro­soft is in favour of customers choosing Microsoft Office, whereas IBM is in favour of them choosing Lotus Notes. But you still have to wonder why IBM, which usually puts a lot of effort into talking up its openness, put itself in a position where it looks hypocritical.

When Open XML was standardised as ECMA-376, the committee included Apple, Intel, the British Library and many others.

Tom Robertson, Microsoft's general manager of interoperability and standards, says, "Twenty members voted for standardisation and 20 voted to send it on to the ISO for ratification. One tried to block it, and that was IBM."

He adds that IBM then mounted "a comprehensive global resource-intensive effort" to try to convince people that Open XML should not even be considered. "That was clearly an attempt to advance IBM's commercial interest in Lotus Notes," says Robertson.

Well, one comprehensive global resource-intensive effort begets another. Robertson says that, previously, Microsoft's strategy for promoting openness had been left "for the most part to the different product groups". That changed 18 months ago, when it decided to take a company-wide approach.

The battle plan is based on a four-pronged attack: designing products for interoperability, collaborating with partners, providing access to technology through licensing and community programmes, and putting technologies up for standardisation.

Examples of this strategy include the Interoperability Vendor Alliance, which does compatibility tests, and the Interoperability Executive Customer Council for CIOs. The access component includes the open specification promise, which allows free use of some patents, and a few open source projects. Open XML is poster boy for the standards effort.

It is an impossible task. As with IBM, it would take decades to transform Microsoft. Also, Open XML will never win over ODF proponents: nothing would. However, the new formats are more open, more accessible and more standardised than the old binary ones. Pragmatists, at least, will welcome them as a step in the right direction.

Developers produce first ODF and XML translator >>

Microsoft backs ODF standard >>

The Guardian: Jack Schofield's blog >>

Interoperability Vendor Alliance >>

Microsoft: interoperability, choice and open XML >>

IBM: accessibility ODF coding challenge >>

Comment on this article: computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk


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