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 Friday, 16 May 2008
Guest Opinion: Office Open XML Q&A

So got an email from Brett Roberts @ Microsoft this evening saying he wanted to stick an op-ed piece he did for Computerworld up on the web but he didn't have anywhere to put it. Now usuall I'd be a snarky little bastard and remind Brett that his company has a blogging platform (Live Spaces) which they must have invested oodles into and maybe he should start blogging..... but instead I volunteered to post his piece up here. So herewith the piece that Brett did for Computerworld alongside Don Christie from the NZOSS. The opinions below are not mine (except where I am quoted) but I do share some similar sentiments and I was on the 'Yes please' side of the ledger in the whole OOXML process.

Computerworld Q&A

Brett Roberts, Microsoft New Zealand Director of Innovation


1.       Why should we care about global standards, or in this case the debate around Open XML?

The Office Open XML format is gaining momentum. There are literally thousands of developers already building applications which utilise or interoperate with the current Ecma 376 standard across a variety of platforms including Linux, Windows, Mac OS and Palm OS. These span the industry from big players like Apple, IBM and Novell to innovative companies in New Zealand like Intergen.

In the past, document formats have been closed and this has caused problems for developers but it’s also been an issue for companies and government organisations who need to retain long-term access to information stored in those documents. Opening up the document formats via a published and freely-available specification is a great step forward. Placing that specification under the stewardship of the International Organisation for Standardization - ISO – is even more significant for the broad IT community because it means the standard is permanently in the public domain and subject to the strict controls and processes of the independent International Organization for Standardization (ISO).


2.       What are the benefits or otherwise of Open XML to New Zealand businesses and the New Zealand public?

The Open XML specification empowers developers to create a host of new innovations for customers.  Chris Auld, Intergen’s Director of Strategy and Innovation says, “having an internationally documented standard such as Office Open XML allows innovative New Zealand companies such as Intergen to reach a global audience.

Demonstrating this, Intergen has announced it groundbreaking new software product TextGlow. A world-first, TextGlow allows users to view Office Open XML Word documents without having to download them, irrespective of whether or not they have Microsoft Word or any other Microsoft Office application installed.

“TextGlow is a unique product combining Office Open XML and Silverlight for the first time,” says Auld. “Microsoft Office documents have traditionally required software to be installed on the local machine. The new XML- based file format, coupled with Silverlight, has allowed us to make documents viewable directly through users’ web browsers. We are already cross platform on Windows and Macintosh and hope to be supporting Linux in the next couple of months.” 

With many organisations storing documents in web based document management systems such as SharePoint products and technologies, a quick preview of documents within the browser will boost productivity significantly.

In addition, a recent blog by Jan van den Beld, former Secretary General of Ecma International in Geneva,  highlights six  key benefits to Open XML. In brief:

1. Transfer of control

2. Transfer stewardship

3. Chance for industry and implementers:

4. Evolution of the standard

5. Interoperability

6. Conformance and interoperability testing

3.       Why is a standard for legacy documents required in light of the fact that Microsoft has just published the specs for those documents?

The rigorous technical review associated with the standards process is making it possible for Open XML to support an ever broadening set of requirements.

OpenXML is built around a small number of really important design goals. Top of the list is the goal of being able to represent existing binary documents in an XML based mark-up. To achieve this you have to have a document standard that fully represents all of the elements that are in those existing binary documents. OpenXML is the only document standard capable of doing this. Other document standards would have to be extended beyond their design goals to provide this capability.

The publishing of the binary file formats is an additional piece of the jigsaw puzzle that ensures the availability of all Microsoft Office documents for generations to come. Providing the capability for developers today to fully understand the Microsoft Office binary files will encourage both a rich array of tools to convert files to the new OpenXML format, and create additional opportunities for a limited subset of customers to just archive existing documents in their current format. This is especially  important to some customer groups, the legal community for example.

To ensure that documents are protected for generations to come organisations like the British Library and the US National Library of Congress have stepped up to act as digital archivists of the binary file format specifications. Sitting side by side with OpenXML as an ISO standard we now have an environment where documents are truly open and access to them can be guaranteed in perpetuity.


4.       If Open XML is rejected as a global standard, what will it mean for businesses and the public?

I don’t think we’ll know initially but over time strong opponents of Office Open XML will lobby governments in particular, to adopt technology procurement preferences which favour ODF-based solutions.


As a taxpayer, I’m not convinced that removing choice will increase innovation, increase competition and therefore lower costs. I suspect the opposite will happen. More concerning is the fact that there are tens of thousands of highly-skilled programmers in New Zealand who build innovative technology solutions and are quickly becoming known in the global marketplace. We should be offering them more opportunities to win export dollars– not less.


5.       Why not just one standard for all?

There are many reasons. Firstly, Office Open XML and ODF were built with very different design goals in mind. The argument that we only need one ISO standard document format makes as much sense as saying we only need one ISO standard programming language.

The “one standard for all” concept makes the assumption that the first standard “out of the starting blocks” will encompass current and future needs. It’s a tenuous argument.

And a report published by the Burton Group in January of this year agrees, stating that ODF is insufficient for complex real-world enterprise requirements...and...libraries and large businesses, faced with storing and using years of Microsoft Office legacy documents, will prefer OOXML, as OOXML can more faithfully recreate the look and metadata (such as spreadsheet formulas) stored in Microsoft’s binary file formats.

6.       Why does open XML not include macros, scripting, OLE serialisation, and leave so much to be "application-defined"?

Competition between Office Automation suites has always been an important factor in driving much of the innovation that we enjoy in the industry and as users today. The process to standardise OpenXML is a process to standardise the data format, not an application. Standardising the full application would remove the ability for different office applications to compete with each other and slow that pace of innovation.


Macros are a great example of this point. They’re an application behaviour that is unique to Microsoft Office. Macros provide the user with a way of telling the Office Suite what to do with information once it is loaded into memory. Standardising the macro language from Microsoft Office as part of the OpenXML process would force any future applications that implemented the data format to also implement the same macro language. In reality other applications may choose to implement a wide array of other macro or development languages that are more relevant to their own target users. 


7.       Should governments adopt OOXML as a document standard?

 Absolutely. Government use the older binary formats today along with Office Open XML, PDF, HTML, RTF and TXT files. Government, like all customers, choose the best tool for the job and Office Open XML offers them another option. Government is also dealing on a daily basis with Office Open XML documents being sent to them by individuals and businesses and it seems to me that adopting it as a standard makes sense from a purely pragmatic perspective.







Human Aggregation | PoliTechLaw|Friday, 16 May 2008 08:03:03 UTC|Comments [0]|