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Two Sides of the OOXML Coin

Maybe it's because I'm a middle child in an angry, Irish family, but I've always played the role of diplomat. Whether it's soothing tempers around the dinner table or hoping to find common ground in a heated political discussion, I'm not one to admire intransigence.

So imagine my dilemma covering the ongoing push to make Office Open XML (OOXML) an ISO standard. After talking to some of the brightest minds in the industry, I've come to an unsatisfying conclusion: Smart people can, and often must, disagree. And sometimes, they must disagree violently.

Which helps explain the invective coming out of the open source and OpenDocument Format (ODF) community this week, in the wake of the April 1 announcement by the ISO that OOXML had, indeed, won approval as a standard.

Sun's Tim Bray, who represented Canada in the ISO Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM), wrote in his blog back on Feb. 29 at the conclusion of the BRM session:

"The process was complete, utter, unadulterated bullsh*t. I'm not an ISO expert, but whatever their 'Fast Track' process was designed for, it sure wasn't this. You just can't revise six thousand pages of deeply complex specification-ware in the time that was provided for the process."

His subsequent essay offers a more balanced perspective, though his criticism of the technical product remains.

Meanwhile, guys like Mono Project founder Miguel de Icaza praise the technical worth of OOXML and earn a firestorm of scathing critique from open source advocates. Andrew Brust, an RDN contributor, Microsoft regional director and chief of new technology at consultancy twentysix New York, said of the process that Microsoft was forced to counter targeted opposition from competitors and open source advocates.

"I think the worst you can say about that effort was that it was necessary to make the vote fair, and it was unfortunate that the OOXML standard could not be judged exclusively on its technical merits," Brust said. "Were it judged that way, without the politics, I think it would have won approval [in the first round of voting], and done so with much less rancor."

OOXML has passed muster in the ISO, and Microsoft is, predictably, calling for people to set aside their differences in the ratification process and move forward. But with the European Commission looking for signs that Microsoft abused its monopoly position in the ISO process, and the real possibility of an appeal being filed, it's clear that the healing process may take longer to start than even a diplomat like myself might hope.

E-mail me at [email protected].

Posted by Michael Desmond on 04/03/2008

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