I hadn’t really planned to become well-informed about OOXML, but I have. So I thought I’d build my own personal list of reasons for and against OOXML becoming an ISO standard.

Some Rights Reserved · This essay is copyright © 2008 by Tim Bray, and this notice overrides the notice labeled “rights” which covers the other material published through this Web site. Excerpts from this essay may not be republished in any form unless they are accompanied by a link to the original essay and the following notice: “This is excerpted from Tim Bray’s On OOXML, which discusses both sides of the issue and which should be read in full for context.” There is one exception: the material in the first paragraph, appearing before this notice, may be freely excerpted by anyone for any purpose.

I’m serious. Anyone who cherry-picks content from this piece without playing by the rule above can count on hearing from an attorney PDQ.

Also, this represents only my opinions. They have been influenced by my twenty-one years of experience with XML and its predecessors, my readings from the OOXML spec, the national bodies’ comments on it, my discussions with my colleagues in the Canadian advisory committee, the experience from the Ballot Resolution Meeting at Geneva, and my colleague Lauren Wood. My thanks to all those people; but if I’m wrong about this stuff, it’s my fault not theirs.

And in particular, this does not represent my employer’s position.

Pro: It’s Not That Bad · OOXML has received a huge amount of review. I’m satisfied that as amended by the BRM, it constitutes an accurate (although unpolished and incomplete) specification of the data format used by Microsoft Office, starting with Office ’97. For example, I was impressed by the description of how Excel really works inside, as reflected in the XML it writes.

The fact that it’s thousands of pages long really isn’t that much of a usability problem; the PDF version is well-structured and nicely hyperlinked. Assuming you have some sort of decent PDF reader, if you want to find out how the CEILING function works, or how fonts are assigned to the bits of a PowerPoint slide, you’ll get there.

In fact, the guys at Microsoft who built the ad-hoc content-management system for this project should be proud of themselves, and they should write it up somewhere; I’m very impressed.

Pro: It Might Create a Market · There’s a decent chance that the publication of OOXML will help build an open ecosystem for people who want to write tools to read and write office documents, which would be good for the world and Microsoft too. I can imagine mining the inventory of documents for Business-Compliance or accessibility-checking purposes. Conversely, I can see generating OOXML documents from other business applications.

Now, you’ve always been able to do these things; Microsoft’s publication of the binary formats the other day was really a non-event, since they’d long since been exhaustively reverse-engineered. But this should reduce the cost and difficulty. First, because XML is easier to read and write than idiosyncratic binary formats. And second, because OOXML provides an actual explanation of what all the bits and pieces are and what they mean and how they fit together.

Now, for this to work, Microsoft is going to have to provide clarity as to the exact relationship between its products and the standard, whether that be ECMA-376 or a possible future ISO version. But the scenario gets a whole lot more likely with a specification in place; especially since Microsoft is shipping 70 million or so copies of Office per year.

Pro: Reduce Litigation Fear · Microsoft has promised not to sue anyone for using either the ECMA or possible ISO versions of the spec. Granted, their covenant is not as clean and clear as Sun’s, and there have been rumblings of suspicion from various quarters. But I think it’s pretty safe; Microsoft has created an expectation that these formats are free to use. Yeah, they could find a loophole and litigate anyhow, and it might even work. But it’d wreak so much havoc on their image, and their relationship with the world, that it’d amount to a suicide-bombing; they’d do some damage, but they wouldn’t survive it.

Con: It’s Pretty Bad · Treated purely as a spec for representing documents, OOXML is lousy. Frank Farance of the US ISO delegation was quoted as saying there are probably hundreds of defects. He’s being way optimistic. Every time I open it and start reading, I pretty soon come across some unforgivably-ugly piece of XML or hideous piece of English grammar or statement that just doesn’t make sense. There are going to be interoperability problems up the wazoo.

And while it received lots of vetting, the amount of scrutiny per page, compared to the standards I’ve worked on in the W3C and IETF, is laughable.

Then there are proprietary issues: for example, for a variety of OOXML elements, you can attach an attribute like this: target="_media". Which is totally IE-specific, thus Windows-specific.

Then there’s the fact that at the end of the day, this is basically an XML dump of a thirty-year-old computer program’s internal data format. Which severely compromises the data’s reusability; and I’ve always thought that opening the door to unanticipated reusability is one of the big payoffs for using XML.

There’s another big quality problem: OOXML allows the use of “custom schemas”; i.e. you can enrich your documents with your own elements and attributes, and still work on them with Office. The problem is, history teaches that this is a terrible idea. As far back as the Eighties, people were doing this with SGML, and of course XML tried to continue the practice. It should be instructive that there were several companies founded to build and sell the technology around this, and none of them ever made any money to speak of; they’re gone.

Custom schema work turns out to be horribly complex in practice, in setting up the editing and versioning and display and formatting technologies; a recipe for huge, years-long, consulting engagements, and really lousy results. Don’t go there.

Con: Microsoft Will Use It As A Club · Why does OOXML need to be standardized, since (in ODF) there’s already a perfectly-decent standard for Office documents, being actively developed? The official party line is that OOXML is different from ODF; all about standardizing a way to access the huge legacy base of office documents. And that sounds plausible.

But you know, that’s not how it’s going to be marketed. I had a couple of conversations with Microsoft people, raising the point that for most ordinary office documents, OOXML or ODF would work about as well. I got strong push-back; they told me all about how the ODF approach is limited and primitive and absolutely nowhere near as good as theirs.

So you can bet that the microsecond OOXML gets standardized, all that stuff about legacy coverage is going to be forgotten, and we’re going to see a full-bore global marketing assault about how this is the one true XML office document format; bigger, brighter, better, and everything else is a toy.

This doesn’t strike me as a good outcome.

Con: ECMA-376 vs. “ISO OOXML” · As a result of the process that culminated in the BRM, a bunch of stuff was added to the input ECMA-376 document. Most of it was good, as in you can use IRIs as opposed to DOS file-paths for pictures and so on, and it’s got some extra support for accessibility, and so on. But of course, none of that is supported by the hundred-million-or-so instances of Microsoft Office in the field. So if you’re an implementor writing data out, you better not use any of that stuff because, well, it won’t work. And even if Microsoft decides to include all those features in their products, they won’t be in the field for years and years. Similarly, if you’re writing code to read OOXML, you can pretty well skip the new markup, because there won’t be any of it.

So, if you believe the official story that OOXML exists to standardize the huge legacy of office documents, it’s irritating that it now contains a whole bunch of extra, hastily-added, “this-might-be-nice” features that nobody will be able to use for that purpose.

Con: Standards Process Abuse · Microsoft decided, rather than working to produce a harmonized standard by enhancing ODF to add MS-Office-specific features, to re-invent the world from scratch. This seems wrong.

ECMA, which claims to be a serious standards organization, blessed the process of generating a XML dump of the internal data format and publishing it in six thousand poorly-edited pages, in well under a year. This seems wrong.

ISO allowed ECMA to submit this on their fast-track process with breathtaking obliviousness to the existence of other standards and lack of concern for harmonization. This seems wrong.

ISO allowed the draft to be substantially edited and enhanced after the initial ballot. This seems wrong.

It tried to repair the damage by stuffing 120 people in a room in Geneva for five days to address a thousand changes to the spec. This seems wrong.

Thus, there’s an argument that this kind of process abuse shouldn’t be allowed to go unpunished. If Microsoft gets their standard, it’ll be a signal to other big players to try to do the same thing. If ISO gets away with doing this, it’ll have two negative effects. First, respect for International Standards in general will be diminished. Second, other people will start trying the same thing.

Conclusion · Well, my mind is still open. Locking Microsoft into a set of XML-based document-structure rules they have to play by (even if they wrote the rules), well, there’s probably an upside to that. But on the other hand, I dislike OOXML at an engineering level and I really dislike the cynical, abusive standards process it came with.

At the moment, it looks like we get the benefits (covenant not to sue, stable spec), without the downsides (Microsoft marketing club, rewarding ISO malfeasance) even if the ISO process fails.

What am I missing?


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: SGJ (Mar 04 2008, at 13:11)

It's not clear that copyright law gives you the power to restrict excerpting so absolutely. Under fair use, short quotes of a longer work are automatically for purposes of commentary/criticism. (Disclaimer: fair use is very complicated and is hard to summarize in a few words. The point is that the public is always granted at least some permissions whether the copyright holder agrees or not.)


From: Louis Steinberg (Mar 04 2008, at 13:21)

To my mind the biggest downside of an ISO OOXML is that the existence of such a standard will be taken by governments to mean OOXML is in fact an open standard that anyone can implement. Therefore they will see nothing wrong with policies that require using it to interact with the government, and thus in actual practice require people to buy Microsoft software.


From: George (Mar 04 2008, at 14:06)

Fair use is a copyright principle based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials forpurposes of commentary and criticism. For example, if you wish to criticize a novelist, you should have the freedom to quote a portion of the novelist's work without asking permission. Absent this freedom, copyright owners could stifle any negative comments about their work.

Comments, Tim?




From: John Cowan (Mar 04 2008, at 14:12)

For "even if the process fails" read "even if the process succeeds"; that is, if ISO rejects the FDIS.


From: Tony Fisk (Mar 04 2008, at 14:37)

Tim, I am puzzled by your closing remarks about 'at the moment we get the upsides without the downsides'. Do you mean the way things are prior to adoption of ecma-376?

It is my admittedly amateur impression that the crux of all this is the decision to use the 'fasttrack' approach to get ecma-376 adopted as a standard. Had Microsoft started this process 10 years ago and gone through the (ahem) standard ISO hoops, the outcome would have been much clearer (and probably more favourable to Microsoft)

As it is, they can't afford the time. They are running to catch the bus, and aren't too particular about who they bowl over in catching it. If they don't get this pushed through now, they will be faced with a market that has adopted ODF as a standard and the prospect of their 'cash cow' becoming increasingly sidelined.

In short, the whole process is about the application of a very knobbly marketing club with a rubber grip. I don't think it is going to get them what they want on this occasion, but it won't stop them wielding it.


From: Mark (Mar 04 2008, at 15:09)

Tim, you don't have a lawyer. At least not a copyright lawyer. If you did, he would have made short work of your proposed legal threat language.


From: Rob Weir (Mar 04 2008, at 15:20)

I wonder... How many of your "Pro" points would still remain true if OOXML were not approved by ISO, but retained its status as Ecma-376?

And how many of your "Con" points would be eliminated by that same outcome?

IMHO, this really isn't a question of whether OOXML should exist or not. OOXML is here, just like the binary formats before. The question is whether OOXML should be given ISO standard status in addition to being an Ecma standard.


From: cuckoo (Mar 05 2008, at 13:02)

you seem to be much more optimistic towards ooxml than an idealistic approach. I say this because I think what ms is doing is nothing more than a lame excuse.

MS's efforts have to be acknowledged and dismissed. There is less fruitful to pursue further.

It is too sad that after all these years, COM experiments and SW engineering experience, the problems still remain as before. Where matters, it is in stone age. (office apps & collab).

A more stringent approach from standard bodies might help. But, it is money which matters at the end. What worrisome is, it is the money earned disregarding the common good.


From: Nick Carr (Mar 05 2008, at 13:38)

Given that you know a lot of the politics and the players, do you have any thoughts about how practical it would have been to get the ODF people and Microsoft to work together to create a single standard? Can you see a way that could have met the different objectives but been less confrontational?


From: Tim (Mar 05 2008, at 14:54)

Nick Carr: I think it would have been quite practical, had there been any desire to co-operate. A good outcome couldn't have been guaranteed, but would have been perfectly possible.

My impression is that Microsoft's business goals would not have been well-served by such a process. Empirically, no attempt was made.


From: James (Mar 06 2008, at 04:50)

"Locking Microsoft into a set of XML-based document-structure rules they have to play by (even if they wrote the rules), well, there’s probably an upside to that."

Except it won't lock them in - Office 2007 doesn't follow Ecma 376, let alone DIS 29500 - Microsoft will just advertise "Look, we have an ISO standard" and not actually follow it. What about the IE8 standards-mode backflip I hear you say? The IE8 team likely wanted standards support and took advantage of the changing political situation to change the default, I've seen no evidence that the Office team actually cares about real standards. (Mmmm, Kreminology).


From: len (Mar 06 2008, at 06:37)

Sun can put all of its hardware designs on the street corner for any comer. Can't do that? Bad for business?

Alright then, ask Sun to abandon its server lines and build Dell boxes. Can't do that? Bad for business?

One set of rules for fair play, Tim; else there are no rules.

Rick Jeliffe has been right all along. Having OOXML is better than not having OOXML. ODF can't do the job and Microsoft can't chop down its existing products to be ODF systems. That would hurt their users. Is the standard as artifact more important than the work of the users? I'm not a Chomskyan. The word is not the thing. Reflections are transient bits of light we create to help us choose who we care to groom. Nothing else. When fixed to a medium, they are less than that.

The damage done to the standards processes is a direct result of Microsoft competitors waging war on the submission, not by the submission. Vox populi is not the voice of right.


From: hAl (Mar 06 2008, at 09:10)

A possiblitiy of the a non ISO descision might be that Microsoft takes up ODF. Microsoft style.

Already some governments demand it and if the ISO thing fials this will grow.

Even as a backup plan Microsoft will create an extensions filled ODF version for Office and mayby also try a slide in at OASIS ODF TC because it can only go there way in there.

Either they get the changes they want (and other don't want) or they can act out on being blocked from really participating in publicity and even in legal battles or at the least they can hold up the new version of ODF till kingdom come.

I don't think the next version of ODF can get away with the MathML schema replaced by a validation of "anything" or with the lousy SVG support a next time around in ISO either.


From: DJ (Mar 06 2008, at 10:43)

len wrote: "The damage done to the standards processes is a direct result of Microsoft competitors waging war on the submission, not by the submission."

I would argue that the damage done to the standards process is the direct result of Microsoft trying to cram a sub-par specification through the system.

The world has rolled over and taken Microsoft's crap for so long it is no surprise that its fan-boys are so shocked and appalled that someone would dare stand up and say enough is enough. I would simply recommend they all get used to it.


From: Other Mark (Mar 06 2008, at 12:06)

@ DJ

Microsoft's fan-boys happen to be most of the market. The Unix world overpriced its apps and hardware years ago and has never recovered. PC hardware is "open-source." It is cheaper than that of Sun or Apple. MS is now going after the DBMS market and will probably underprice Oracle. Like Carville said "it's the economy, stupid." MS understands the economy. (That includes branding, availablity and cost of human support, not just software cost and software "goodness" to use a marketing term.) And, like someone said, "If you're not cheating, your not trying to win."


From: DJ (Mar 06 2008, at 16:14)

"If you're not cheating, your not trying to win."

If you are cheating, don't cry when you're caught and someone calls you out on it.


From: Other Mark (Mar 07 2008, at 05:40)

@ DJ

"If you are cheating, don't cry when you're caught and someone calls you out on it."

I agree.

But don't cry when you ignore the realities of the marketplace and lose, either.

(These are all Crocodile tears on both sides, anyway) ;-)


From: Michael Bernstein (Mar 08 2008, at 16:13)

"ODF can't do the job and Microsoft can't chop down its existing products to be ODF systems. That would hurt their users."

This seems like a good example of a disruptive technology gradually moving upmarket, and we pretty much know how that story ends.

BTW, Microsoft has at least one product that could be turned into an ODF system as a defensive move: Microsoft Works.


From: Orlanz (Mar 09 2008, at 12:11)

len wrote:

"Rick Jeliffe has been right all along. Having OOXML is better than not having OOXML. ODF can't do the job and Microsoft can't chop down its existing products to be ODF systems. That would hurt their users."

The existence of OOXML is not determined by anyone but MS. No one is saying OOXML should be banished from the face of the earth. Let MS implement OOXML, let them open up the specification, and let them define it as they see fit.

None of these are issues. The issue is that, an ISO "standard" represents something that OOXML is far from. Therefore, OOXML shouldn't become an ISO standard, unless it _strictly_ meets the definition and spirit.

Per the second part, no one is saying that MS needs to abandon what they currently have in place in implementing ODF. Let them implement it side by side, ODF doesn't even need to be the default, let it be an export feature. MS can even put 15 yes/no dialogs that state that the exporting format is inferior. They do that with csv in Excel! ODF will be no different. MS Office is their product, they can even choose not to implement ODF. So they wouldn't be damaging their users, rather choosing to enhance or not. Simple.


From: len (Mar 09 2008, at 20:08)

OOXML is necessary where governments have embraced the concept that ISO standards are the standards worthy of use in procurements. For that to be accepted in commercial entities, commercial products have to be standards.

MS won't willingly walk away from the Office market. So sponsoring the OOXML standard makes eminent sense.

ODF shouldn't be a standard. It was a specification originating in Sun products for a product that failed to take hold in the market. It has become a cause celebre but it never met the bar of market relevancy. Other ISO standards are ignored by ODF-sponsors such as IBM when it suits their business objectives. There is nothing noble or selfless about their objectives in this bitter butter battle. The only lasting outcome is damage to ISO.

We can play this Spy Vs Spy game all day long and into the next year. Let the process work as it is designed to work.


From: John Cowan (Mar 11 2008, at 13:38)

Other Mark: And if you are not attempting to assassinate your adversary's CEO, you're not trying to win either? C'mon. Poison-gas tactics don't help anybody.

Len: MS could *easily* have added proprietary enhancements to ODF to support everything in the Office binary formats. Not doing so is pure dog-in-the-mangerism. There's no justification of their vote-packing, influence-buying behavior either.


From: len (Mar 11 2008, at 14:32)

Yanno, John, they would have been pounded for 'embracing and extending' ODF. Others packed the committees as best as they could too. Pretty soon, cities will compete for ISO meetings like US States compete to be the first in the primaries and everyone competes for the Olympics. The boost to the local economies must be enormous.


From: JRT (Mar 12 2008, at 09:33)

I think the whole point of the copyright statement above is to prevent people from "misusing" the content. Since it asks for a link to the entire essay and attribution, it's meant to prevent people from "quoting out of context", or using one of his pro or anti arguments to make it look like that's all he's talking about.

I think that type of requirement is not preventing "fair use", because he's not asking to suppress quotations, rather, he's just asking for proper attribution. It's similar to Consumer Reports preventing their ratings from being used in company advertisements. The only reason you wouldn't want to follow that requirement (of a link and a notice) is if you intentionally want to mislead people.


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