Developers Sound off on OOXML Vote

Developers skeptical of Microsoft’s effort to make OOXML a global standard.

On Sept. 4, the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) announced that the proposed Microsoft Office Open XML (OOXML) file format had failed to achieve ratification as an international standard. Microsoft had hoped that the XML-based specification would join the increasingly popular OpenDocument Format (ODF) spec as an ISO standard.

The ratification process was remarkably active, with intense lobbying and involvement by Microsoft and its partners and by key ODF sponsors and open source advocates. The 'no' vote drew a surprisingly upbeat response from Microsoft.

"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 Tom Robertson, general manager for interoperability and standards at Microsoft, in a statement. "Given how encouraging today's results were, we believe that the final tally in early 2008 will result in the ratification of Open XML as an ISO standard."

RDN Reader Response: Shock and Awe
With Microsoft planning to keep working for ISO ratification of OOXML, Redmond Developer News readers and developers were quick to offer thoughts of their own.

"The push to get [Microsoft's] OOXML made a standard has gone beyond anything I've seen before," writes Todd Knarr, a C developer at WebSideStory, in an e-mail to Redmond Developer News. "In 25 years I've seen standards debates get acrimonious, and I've seen politics aplenty. I've seen proponents of a standard try to wrangle the results they wanted. I've never, though, seen it go this far, nor be this blatantly obvious."

ODF advocates accused Microsoft of ballot stuffing in the ISO's nation-by-nation voting process, where each nation's vote is determined by the votes of the organizations belonging to the national ISO voting body. Some countries saw a significant number of new organizations join national ISO voting bodies ahead of the OOXML vote.

In late August Microsoft admitted that a Swedish employee had offered compensation to Microsoft partners that engaged in the proposal process in Sweden and voted for the OOXML spec. Sweden invalidated its pending "yes" vote for OOXML and essentially abstained from the final vote.

Technical Objections
Several developers objected to the OOXML spec on technical grounds, arguing that the massive, 6,000-page-long specification was too complex and flawed to be presented as a global standard.

"Microsoft still hasn't explained why we need OOXML," complains Jans Hornboll Hansen, a software developer for Code3 Aps in Copenhagen, Denmark. "Until Microsoft provides concrete examples of why ODF can't accomplish and can't be extended to accomplish backward-compatibility with Microsoft's binary formats, I'll simply assume OOXML is an attempt to divide the market to ensure continued lock-in and avoid competition."

Microsoft says that compatibility with existing Microsoft Office file formats and applications is one reason for the expansive nature of OOXML. Open source developer Martin Owens believes that's a flawed argument. While researching the PDF and ODF file specifications for an upcoming project, Owens opted to look into OOXML as well. He came away feeling that the OOXML designer was being "a bit lazy."

"I mean, if you can't describe what a line spacing should be in a blank canvas of XML text without resorting to pointing at specific applications, then I'm afraid you're just not explaining a standard," writes Owens. "I can only imagine what people would say if HTML had a tag for <looksjustlikeminesweeper state='smilieface'>. It doesn't really help anyone reading the spec, does it?"

Knarr ran into similar issues with the underlying XML in the Microsoft spec.

"If you look at the actual XML of both, ODF is at first glance much more readable. It's also much more amenable to being parsed and manipulated as generic XML," writes Knarr. "MS OOXML, by contrast, is a mess.

6,000 pages of OOXML Specs
[click image for larger view]
When Pavel Janik printed out the entire 6,000-page OOXML spec, he ended up with an impressive mountain of paper. Photo courtesy of Pavel Janik

"My first impression, after going through a complete document saved in it, was that it was written by a first-year programmer who already had his program written and file formats defined, and then was told he had to use XML. So he cobbled together the quickest straight encoding of his internal binary formats into XML that he could."

Owens says he'll steer clear of OOXML for now.

"It's just too complex and far too loose for something I could trust to put in production," Owens says. "Hopefully after the ISO has wrangled the specification, it might start looking a bit more sane. One can only hope."

About the Author

Michael Desmond is an editor and writer for 1105 Media's Enterprise Computing Group.

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