Microsoft Preps OOXML for ISO Vote

Microsoft prepares OOXML for second ISO vote.

Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) file format specification later this month will get a second shot at being ratified as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The vote -- and the maneuvering and changes to the OOXML proposal ahead of the vote -- will have major implications for development shops.

"The stakes in the ODF/OOXML debate are huge," says Burton Group analyst Peter O'Kelly, who recently co-authored with fellow analyst Guy Creese a report detailing the relative positions of OOXML and the competing Open Document Format (ODF) file format specifications.

That report, titled "What's Up DOC?" offers valuable insight into the origins, development and likely future direction of the competing XML file format specifications. It also draws a few conclusions to warm the hearts of Microsoft product managers. A synopsis of the report can be found on the Burton Group Web site here.

Revised Draft
The stage was set for the upcoming February vote back on Sept. 2, when OOXML failed to earn enough support to win fast-track approval as an ISO standard. That initial tally, however, produced a flood tide of comments -- 3,522 in all -- from the various ISO national voting bodies. In the six months between the initial and second ISO votes, OOXML proponents are reviewing and addressing many of the technical objections that stymied it the first time around.

Among the actions being taken based on the ISO feedback are changes to the way OOXML handles dates and related calculations, as well as changes to the handling of password hashing, page borders and other elements. Perhaps most notably, OOXML loses explicit support for the buggy behavior of older versions of Office.

According to a statement by Tom Ngo of the Ecma International standards -- making body that manages the OOXML spec: "Issues related to the 'leap year bug,' VML [Vector Markup Language], compatibility settings such as 'AutoSpaceLikeWord95' and others will be extracted from the main specification and relocated to an independent annex ... for deprecated functionality."

Ngo specifically notes that new documents should not carry forward these "buggy" characteristics. By providing support for such issues in an annex to the spec, however, OOXML would be able to accurately read and output existing Office 95 and other documents.

"This will ensure that existing content can still be successfully migrated, but will also ensure that bugs or legacy semantics will not be perpetuated by the Open XML standard," Ngo writes.

Peter O'Kelly, Analyst, Burton Group

On the Fast Track
The changes should help make the OOXML spec at least a bit more palatable as it approaches a second vote. But O'Kelly and Creese aren't convinced that it matters.

"While ISO standardization would accelerate the use of OOXML in many standards-focused organizations, the February 2008 ISO ballot will not determine the overall fate of OOXML," the report predicts.

Instead, the report finds that the overwhelming dominance of Microsoft Office will almost certainly propel OOXML into widespread use among shops using the suite. Their recommendation in the report, which targets enterprise IT and developers, is blunt:

"Any organization directly or indirectly (e.g., exchanging files with business partners) using Microsoft Office applications should plan to exploit OOXML," according to the report. "Although moving to OOXML file formats involves some administrative challenges, the opportunities for improved content management and productivity outweigh the short-term inconvenience of migrating from binary file formats."

Their assessment of ODF is less glowing. The report describes ODF as being "insufficient for complex real-world enterprise requirements."

In a telephone interview with RDN, O'Kelly says that assessment is based on ODF's simpler-is-better position, which he says can fall short of enterprise requirements.

"The paradox of this is that there are many people in the OOXML community who assert that it's oxymoronic to talk about multiple standards in a given domain," O'Kelly says. "My response to them -- and I'm really not trying to be politically provocative on this -- is they're different domains. One of them [OOXML] is saying we start with an assumption that full Office interoperability is important, and one [ODF] says it's not."

Developer Decisions
The report does caution development managers about the inherent complexity of OOXML, urging dev shops to take advantage of frameworks and tools, such as Altova Inc.'s XMLSpy, that can abstract the low-level complexity presented by OOXML.

"There's just a whole new range of content you can get to that would have been much more problematic to reach before," O'Kelly says. "There are definitely a lot of companies that are already taking advantage of this, and it just simplifies the application development challenge for them because they have fewer moving parts."

So what should dev shops be doing as the February vote approaches? O'Kelly urges IT and development organizations to start aligning their efforts around XML, rather than closed, application-bound file formats.

Says O'Kelly, "As far as I'm concerned, from an XML data developer's point of view, the advent of both Open XML and ODF means that it's instant on."

About the Author

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

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