Microsoft, IBM in slap-fight over open document formats

OpenXML, ODF at heart of tussle

Microsoft went on the offensive Wednesday with a Valentine’s Day attack on IBM openly accusing its rival of trying to subvert Microsoft’s efforts to standardize its new document format and in turn destabilize customer choices.

“A lot of hype -- and smoke and mirrors obfuscation -- surrounds interoperability these days,” Microsoft wrote in an open letter published on its Web site.

The letter was authored by Tom Robertson, the general manager for interoperability and standards, and Jean Paoli (pictured), general manager for interoperability and XML architecture.

The hype and obfuscation references point squarely at IBM, which was the only Ecma International member to vote ‘no’ in December to standardizing Microsoft’s Open XML file format.

Ecma International, an international membership-based standards organization for information and communication systems, approved the standardization measure.

OpenXML is the default file format in Office 2007, and support has been back ported to Office 2003, Office XP and Office 2000.

Format fracas

Rivals IBM and Microsoft are in another pitched battle, this time over the future of standardized file formats, specifically the OpenDocument Format (ODF) and Microsoft's Open XML. Here is a look at some of the strengths of both formats.


Open XML
Uses a mixed content model, which is considered friendlier to developers than other models.Captures 100% of formatting in older Office documents.
Uses existing standards for such functions as drawing, equations and linking.Excel formula language completely defined, whereas ODF is still working on its Excel formula specification.
Separation of style and content considered better in ODF than in other formats.Spreadsheet format said to be faster than ODF spreadsheet format.
Specification is 500 pages long.Specification is 6,000 pages long.


After the Ecma vote, Bob Sutor, IBM’s vice president of open source and open standards, wrote on his blog: “The OpenDocument Format ISO standard is vastly superior to the Open XML spec.” Sutor also said in his post: “ODF is what the world needs today to drive competition, innovation and lower costs for customers. It is an example of a real open standard versus a vendor-dictated spec that documents proprietary products via XML. ODF is about the future, Open XML is about the past. We voted for the future.”

Microsoft is seeking further standardization of OpenXML through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), a move that IBM is also contesting.

Microsoft claims its rival has led a campaign to subvert OpenXML standardization at the ISO and is trying to prevent the format from being judged on its technical merits.

The open letter states: “This campaign to stop even the consideration of Open XML in [ISO] is a blatant attempt to use the standards process to limit choice in the marketplace for ulterior commercial motives – and without regard for the negative impact on consumer choice and technological innovation.”

IBM added more fuel to the fire Monday when it released what it calls the Open Client Solution, an Eclipse-based cross-platform desktop client that features a set of collaboration components including a document editor that supports ODF but not OpenXML.

By Wednesday, Microsoft had heard enough.

“Microsoft has determined that it is important to shine a bright light on IBM’s activities that will have a negative impact on the IT industry and customers, including taking concrete steps to prevent customer choice, engaging in hypocrisy, and working against the industry and against customer needs,” a company spokesman said via e-mail. “Microsoft will continue to be public in identifying the ways that IBM is trying to prevent customer choice.”

In the open letter, Microsoft outlines its work on interoperability issues over the past year, including creation of its Interoperability Executive Customer Council, made up of senior CIOs, and the Interoperability Vendor Alliance, which worked with JBoss and Novell to build interoperability among their products.

On Monday, Microsoft and Novell outlined progress in their relationship in terms of virtualization technology and integration of an open source translator technology that works between OpenXML and ODF.

That work, however, is drawing heat from more than IBM.

Some open source advocates have gone as far as to call for a boycott of Novell, which said it will include the open source OpenXML translator in its next version of OpenOffice.

In its letter, Microsoft directly addresses document formats and XML, saying “We believe that Open XML represents an exciting advance toward achieving the original vision of XML, where broad interoperability allows documents to be archived, restructured, aggregated and re-used in new and dynamic ways.”

OpenXML is a departure from historic Microsoft practices with its Office file formats, which it has routinely altered as Office has evolved, creating interoperability issues for users with different versions.

The letter goes on to say that Microsoft’s customers, especially in the government sector, prefer an open, standardized document format, and the letter defends the Ecma process that resulted in OpenXML standardization.

Microsoft uses the letter to focus on the comparison of ODF and OpenMXL, saying, “It is important to recognize that ODF and Open XML were created with very different design goals and that they are only two of many document format standards in use today, each of which has characteristics that are attractive to different users in different scenarios.” The letter notes that PDF and HTML also are ISO standard document formats.

Observers do acknowledge that ODF is nowhere near as feature rich as OpenXML.

“ODF from a feature standpoint is supporting a subset of OpenXML; there is a ways to go on ODF,” says Chris LeTocq, principal analyst of Guernsey Research. “Even if you are IBM and you are committed to ODF you would also have to support OpenXML if that is what customers ask you to do.”

Learn more about this topic

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