ZDNet Interviews Tom Robertson

Wednesday, 2007-February-28 at 19:48

Microsoft: Why the ODF vs. OOXML battle matters by ZDNet‘s Mary Jo Foley — I had a chance to ask Tom Robertson, General Manager of Interoperability and Standards for Microsoft — someone who has a lot invested in the ODF vs. OOXML contest — a few questions regarding why folks should care about the never-ending file-format wars.

Foley:To me, it seems like non-governmental users won’t and don’t care about which file formats their office apps use, given that Microsoft Office still has a more than 95% market share. If you run Office, you basically have to deal with OOXML and older Microsoft file formats. If you run something else, you better find out whether your apps can read/write the Microsoft formats? Am I oversimplifying here?

Robertson: We are always looking to improve the value our software delivers to customers ā€“ always. We heard from many customers that .pdf support was important, and you are familiar withwhat happened there. We support more than 30 other file formats (some standardized, some not) in the Office product because customers have a wide range of both choices and needs for formats. We think Open XML is a very compelling technology, and the work done in Ecma TC45 made it better (we made changes to the format in our final product based on input from companies such as Apple, Novell, and Toshiba as well as organization[s] such as the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Library). Office 2007 enables people to choose from many formats, and now the Open XML Translator has enabled read and write capabilities for ODF as well.

With the news that another state–California–is considering adopting open standard XML-based file formats for office documents (which could be interpreted to mandate ODF), and the continued march of governments around the world to ODF (ISO/IEC 26300:2006), their poorly-done translator is not likely to meet the standard. For one thing, it “bolts” ODF capability on, rather than building it in as a fully-native peer format. It also uses XSLT to attempt the translation when OOXML’s design is not fully usable with XSLT. I cannot see how they could have created a more error-prone method to do the conversions. This could potentially cause Microsoft’s office applications suite to be expelled from government agencies and their employees and contractors.

As many have noted, most people and businesses will only want to use one format, not both OOXML and ODF. If every time you deal with a government agency, you have to deal with ODF, those that have to do this frequently will drop OOXML like a hot potato. If Microsoft’s products won’t support ODF fully and natively, these users will either buy a different office applications suite or find a working conversion plug-in.

Why should people care about the file format wars? I do not believe Mr. Robertson answered this directly. Let me attempt to give the answer that he could not.

People should care about file format wars because they should care about their documents. Many of us are “mind workers,” that is, rather than transforming physical substances into other physical substances, our work consists of generating and transforming mental output. Much of that output is embodied in computer files. If, as is already happening, one company decides whether we will continue to have access to our prior work-product, they can charge any amount of money, use the most enslaving licensing terms, and invade the computers we pay for whenever they feel like doing so. On the other hand, if that work-product is stored in an open, vendor-neutral format, one in which any competent programmer can whip up an application to access our data at any time, then our work-product is likely to be available for as long as we wish it to be.

People should care about the file format wars because it is wrong, plain and simple, to require a specific vendor’s application in order to apply for government jobs or to read government documents or to fill out government forms. Those documents are not the property of any particular company. Instead, they are the property of all of us, and should be stored in formats that are easily accessible by applications made by nearly any vendor, running on nearly any operating system, by any authorized user. No matter how Robertson spins things, ODF meets that requirement. OOXML (ECMA 376 / ISO DIS 29500) does not.

People should care about the file format wars because our schools are teaching kids (and college students as well) specific sequences of mouse-clicks that work with a specific version of a specific vendor’s software, instead of teaching them the general principles of how to use these kinds of software and then equipping students to utilize any application of that type. If your school taught you to use the 2000 version, for example, and you got out and went to work somewhere that used the 2003 version, then you probably will need retraining. That’s a ridiculous waste of time and effort. Our schools should teach students how to apply general knowledge to whatever particular applications a specific business uses.

If ODF continues to spread and OOXML continues to flounder, then students will have the opportunity to learn to use several different applications to achieve the same tasks. On the other hand, if schools continue to be locked into one particular vendor’s software, those students that wind up working where another application is used will be unproductive.

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