Rue de la Science to be exact, in Brussels; a nondescript address in the endless sprawl of European Union infrastructure. What happened was, a few days before I started at Sun on March 15, they called up and said “Would you like to go to Brussels for a March 23 presentation on XML Office Document Formats?” vs. Microsoft, naturally.

Four of us from Sun stood at the front of a smallish committee room in the building on Science Street, crowded with thirty or so IT policymakers from around Europe. The question: should the European Commission standardize on an Office Document Data Format? And if so, should it be XML or Microsoft XML? We had between 10:30AM and 12:30 to present, then the Microsofties were in between 1:30 and 3:30.

Mon Ami Jean · The amusing thing is that one of the Microsoft guys is Jean Paoli, the head XML guy on the Office team; Jean and I go back together at least a dozen years. We have quite a bit in common: He’s a French citizen but is actually Lebanese, so we both grew up in Beirut (I’m 100% Canadian but my Dad had a job there). We both spent years laboring away trying to sell the world on SGML, the standard that came before XML and never really made it to prime time, hanging out at the same conferences and committee meetings and so on. Jean has tried to hire me at Microsoft on a couple of occasions.

He’s definitely a Microsoft true-believer but that doesn’t stop him being an amusing fellow. He’s wildly enthusiastic about XML and has been on an extended high for the last three years as a result of having won some internal turf wars and made the Office team take XML seriously. He’ll bend your ear for hours about the wonderfulness of MS Office XML, which in fact is dramatically better than any MS Office data format before it.

I didn’t get the chance, but I would have loved to lie in wait for him outside the committee room and ambush him with a Salut, Jean... bonne chance! just for fun.

The Argument · You can find some of the materials on the EC Web site. Our basic points were first that the Office XML formats are incomplete (no PowerPoint, missing pieces in Excel), second that the licensing terms are kind of scary (our lawyer’s acid-tongued comments have been excised from the online papers), third that the OO.o format is much more reusability-oriented, and finally that Microsoft has iron control over every aspect of their XML, while the OO.o format is well on its way to being an Oasis standard.

Microsoft’s main talking point (I’m guessing here from the public documents) was that their software and format had the advantage that in WordML you can edit documents from arbitrary schemas.

Our pushback on that was that editing arbitrary-schema documents is damn hard and damn expensive and has never been anything more than a niche business. I don’t know what their pushback on our points about completeness and licensing and control and so on was.

The Finale · As we were winding up, a couple of really smart people (don’t know who they were) put up their hands and asked real good questions. The best was essentially “What would you like to see happen?” After some back and forth, I ended up with “You should have the right to own your own information. It’s your intellectual capital and you worked hard to produce it for your citizens. Sun doesn’t own it, Microsoft doesn’t own it, you own it, and that means it should be living in a nice, long-lived, non-proprietary data format that isn’t anyone’s competitive weapon.”

Which is really what it’s all about.

The Outcome · You can find the Committee’s conclusions here; they’re short, readable, and defy summarization. Other outcomes were that I got to know a bunch of interesting people at Sun really quickly, and had a nice visit to Brussels.

author · Dad
colophon · rights
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June 09, 2004
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