ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words

xml logoMy last post – Why Johnny Can’t Format [a book] attracted enough attention (over 900 reads so far, plus many comments, tweets, and other social media pass-along) that I thought those that read it might want to learn more about the standards war I referred to. I started a book way back in 2007 describing that epic battle, and below you can find the original introduction and first chapter.  I’ll follow with more if there’s sufficient interest.  Enjoy!

For some time I’ve been considering writing a book about what has become a standards war of truly epic proportions.  I refer, of course, to the ongoing, ever expanding, still escalating conflict between ODF and OOXML, a battle that is playing out across five continents and in both the halls of government and the marketplace alike.  And, needless to say, at countless blogs and news sites all the Web over as well.

Arrayed on one side or the other, either in the forefront of battle or behind the scenes, are most of the major IT vendors of our time.  And at the center of the conflict is Microsoft, the most successful software vendor of all time, faced with the first significant challenge ever to one of its core businesses and profit centers – its flagship Office productivity suite.

The story has other notable features as well:  ODF is the first IT standard to be taken up as a popular cause, and also represents the first “cross over” standards issue that has attracted the broad support of the open source community.  Then there are the societal dimensions: open formats are needed to safeguard our culture and our history from oblivion.  And when implemented in open source software and deployed on Linux-based systems (not to mention One Laptop Per Child computers), the benefits and opportunities of IT become more available to those throughout the third world.

There is little question, I think, that regardless of where and how this saga ends, it will be studied in business schools and by economists for decades to come.  What they will conclude will depend in part upon the materials we leave behind for them to examine.  That’s one of the reasons I’m launching this effort now, as a publicly posted eBook in progress, rather than waiting until some indefinite point in the future when the memories of the players in this drama have become colored by the passage of time and the influence of later events.

My hope is that those of you who have played or are now playing a part in the ODF vs. OOXML story will supplement or correct what I’m writing by sharing your facts and insights, either by posting your comments publicly at this blog, or by contacting me privately me via email.  My goal will be to present what happened as completely, accurately and readably as I can, so I hope that those on both sides of the fence will work with me.  In all cases, I will try and fairly incorporate what you offer into the whole.

My second goal is to help those that have come to this story late in the day – halfway through the movie, as it were – learn what happened prior to when you entered the theater.  That way, you’ll be better able to put current events into context as they happen, understand the cast of characters more fully as they continue to play their parts, and above all, appreciate the nuances of the still unfolding plot.

So without further ado, here is the first chapter of a book whose total length will be determined by events yet to unfold, whose ultimate print publisher is yet to be found, and which for now bears the working title of:

WAR OF THE WORDS

Chapter 1:  Out of Nowhere

On September 1, 2005, a New York-based writer for the London Financial Times named Richard Waters wrote a brief article, posting it to the Web via FT.com’s  San Francisco office.   The seemingly unremarkable subject of the piece was the release of a new draft of a procurement guideline by the Information Technology Division (ITD) of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ procurement of new technology.  Some of the datapoints in the article were wide of the mark (he referred to Massachusetts as “one of the most populous states in the US” for example), but this was fitting for a story that would circle the world for years to come, as often as not unencumbered by facts inconsistent with the spin du jour.

What elevated the story from a space filler in the business section to a hot property was the news that the ITD planned to banish Microsoft’s Office software suite from 50,000 government computers.  If the ITD had its way, 28 Executive Agencies would no longer use Word to create documents, Excel to plot spreadsheets, or PowerPoint to craft presentations.  Instead, government employees would be required to use software that saved documents in “open formats” – which Office did not, according to the ITD’s definition.  Moreover, Microsoft claimed that it had been taken by surprise by the decision (a claim the ITD later denied); Waters rubbed salt in the wound by describing the event as “one of the most significant setbacks” for Microsoft in the US market.

Only the FT.com site carried the story at first.  But word of the defection of this large Microsoft customer spread quickly via the Internet, in large part because of the abundance of blogs and amateur news sites that focus on technology stories, but also because so many of the people who write for and visit these sites are hostile to Microsoft.  Soon, visitors with strange on-line aliases like SpaceLifeForm, Sammy the Snake and Cybervegan were posting gleeful comments at the expense of the software vendor, and trying to learn more about what “open formats” might be, and why they were so important.

The decision makers in Massachusetts were Peter Quinn, the state’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), and his boss, Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss.  There were good reasons why they wanted to convert to software capable of saving documents using open formats. One was so that citizens could exchange documents with the State no matter what software they chose to use.  As things currently stood, someone in Massachusetts would need to invest in a copy of Office before he or she could download a document electronically from a state government site.

But an even more important motivation arose from the fact that Massachusetts, like governments everywhere, was rapidly moving towards a future where public records in paper form would cease to exist.  Soon, government archives would exclusively comprise documents in electronic form, stored in vast banks of servers or on magnetic media.  After thousands of years, traditional hard copy documents were destined to follow the path earlier taken by musical recordings, which in the course of a hundred years had already passed from wax, to vinyl, to tape, to optical disk media, eventually to slip the surly bonds of discrete physical storage media entirely and be reborn as electronic files.  These files were recorded in formats of their own, with interesting names like Ogg Vorbis (an open format), or more prosaic ones, like MP3 (a standard implemented under license from a patent pool), as well as the proprietary formats that Apple uses to create its popular iTunes.

Each time one of these new storage formats (physical and then virtual) had came along, the old one became obsolete.  Within a matter of years, new music couldn’t be purchased in the old format at all.  Anyone that wanted to upgrade their equipment while preserving their existing investment in the old format needed to keep their old player in good repair, or else laboriously transfer their old albums, song by song, to the new format, losing fidelity in the process.   Once word processors, each using a proprietary format (Word, WordPerfect and so on), replaced typewriters governments, businesses and individuals faced a repeat of the same experience.  Most had already faced at least one such conversion, typically moving from WordPerfect to Microsoft’s Office, after the latter product became dominant in the marketplace.

Governments that now wished to digitize the millions of hard copy documents lying in their archives faced a far greater challenge due to the sheer size of the task.  And they also felt a greater responsibility as well.  Simply put, Massachusetts wanted to be sure that in five, ten or a hundred years it would be able to access thoses digitized documents using whatever equipment was then available, rather than having to dust off the equivalent of an eight track tape player – if it could find one.

Waters may have used a bit of hyperbole to inflate the commercial importance of Massachusetts in his Financial Times article, but his calibration of the threat that the Massachusetts decision presented to Microsoft was right on the money.  Indeed, Microsoft was already deploying its considerable resources to take all actions necessary to bring about a reversal of the ITD’s decision, if at all possible, and to blunt the market impact of the decision otherwise.

The reason lay not so much in the potential loss of revenue from this large customer, but in the dramatic increase in credibility that the announcement gave to the importance of open formats.  Microsoft owned more than 90% of the global marketplace for office suite software, and had worked long and hard to achieve that enviable position.  Some 400 million customers used Office, and it wasn’t likely that Microsoft would lose them, so long as software utilized “closed” formats controlled by individual vendors.  While that state of affairs continued, most customers would remain trapped  by the billions of documents they had already created.  Opening, converting and resaving those documents using the software of any other vendor would be difficult, time consuming and expensive.  In the words of economists, these customers were safely “locked in.”

But now an open format standard was available that promised to liberate users from lock in to Office for life.  And a high-profile customer had announced that it was leaving the pack to adopt it.  For the first time, there was a breach in Microsoft’s outer defenses.  In response, the vendor was marshalling all of the forces at its disposal to contain the threat before it could spread.

->Next time:  Products, Innovation and Market Share
In which Microsoft conquers the desktop operating system marketplace through a combination of luck, a willingness to adopt the innovations of others, and aggressive business practices

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20 Responses to ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words

  1. Ian Lynch says:

    It is pretty obvious that when ISO 26300 was first proposed, Microsoft could have said yes, an open standard is a good idea and we can contribute to it and adopt it for the next major release if MS Office. We are so confident in our products we can compete on an even footing with anything else that can be used for editing these documents. Instead they rushed to produce their own XML standard and get it to ISO status to effectively maintain the file format based monopoly for as long as possible. It’s blatantly obvious that a commercial self-serving consideration over-rode any rational thoughts for customer or the general good. Ok, Microsoft’s duty is to its shareholders not to its customers and the wider ecosystem so let’s be honest about it. Governments have a mandate to act on behalf of their citizens and freedom to choose which software, especially free software, a citizen chooses to use should not be impeded by the government itself. It is effectively providing state aid to an individual supplier and that is illegal. From this it is clear that governments should firstly express a commitment to odf and specify its full support in any tenders for government procurement. Secondly, it should ensure that all government department’s understand the issue and make all files of information in odf format (they can optionally provide documents in MSFT sponsored ISO format as well but that should not be mandatory) and stop collecting data in proprietary Microsoft formats especially when using a web form would be more appropriate. To this point consciously or unconsciously many governments have been complicit over the last 20 years in entrenching lock-in that is to the disadvantage of their citizens, Time to put that right.

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  2. yoonkit says:

    Sounds like a great book! Need input from Malaysia?

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    • updegrove says:

      YoonKit, great to hear from you. For the benefit of other readers, he was a very strong supporter in Malaysia and very effective in marshalling for ODF there. The answer, of course, is yes! Please set me straight or add additional detail whenever you wish.

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  3. I remember the anguish of losing being able to even use WordPerfect and how many people back didn’t care as long as they could keep creating docs without being hassled. It was a loss of quality to brute force adaptation. The details you show I was only aware if like a cloud blocking the sun on what had been a really nice Soring day. And I am now, unable to cleanly simply produce a tiny ebook file that doesn’t usually need all kinds of minor to major modifications.

    “What they will conclude will depend in part upon the materials we leave behind for them to examine.”

    You’ve got an important history AND current problem still playing out you’re recording Andrew, thank you :-)

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  4. updegrove says:

    My pleasure, and thanks for your encouragement. I hope to complete the record some day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bob Robertson says:

    Mr. Updegrove, thank you for writing this down. Contemporary history is exceedingly important to historians looking back upon events from the future, even just a few years in the future.

    If I may, in chapter 1 paragraph 4, I believe it would be better to say “buy” rather than “invest” in MS Office (but that is just my opinion), and in the same sentence I suggest it is impolite to refer to the Massachusetts resident as “it” rather than “he” who would be doing the downloading of the govt. documents.

    Just as Massachusetts found, I, too, have some archived Word-2 documents that can no longer be opened by Microsoft Office. This is inconvenient for an individual, but actually illegal for a government where public records must be maintained on a permanent basis.

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    • updegrove says:

      Thanks for the text catches, and I’ll make the changes. One of the great ironies of your last comment is the fact that one of the main reasons Microsoft gave for pushing its case for OOXML was that it would be just terrible to abandon the “billions and billions” of Word documents that already existed. Of course, that could have been addressed with converters (which Sun in fact made available to permit swapping of documents between OpenOffice and its own supported ODF software and existing Word documents.

      However, Microsoft has itself abandoned those billions and billions of documents once it defeated ODF, for all practical purposes (for the time being at least), since its later dropped support for those same legacy documents which now, as you note, are not available to users of Microsoft’s current Office suite.

      The result? The owners of those billions and billions of document would be better off today if ODF had prevailed since someone other than Microsoft would have been able to preserve access to them.

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  6. I would be careful describing MP3 as an open format given the difficult patent and licensing issues around it.

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    • updegrove says:

      Matt,

      It’s always risky to make a passing reference to something complicated, and you’ve rightly called me on it. What I meant here was “open in comparison to Word and OOXML,” since anyone can license the technology and no single company controls it. But it would be better not to have referred to it at all, and thanks for raising the point. I’ll delete the reference.

      For those curious about the rather complex background, here is the Wikipedia entry: http://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Extension:Mp3 Suffice it to say that the MPEG standards occupy not only a dense patent thicket, but also arise in an industry sector where royalties are invariably expected. The result was the creation of one of the small number of patent pools that lie behind standards. The benefit to the marketplace is that while it may have to pay a royalty, it can buy a single license from a single source (the patent pool) to get all necessary rights from multiple owners of “essential claims” under the standard.

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  7. Rob Weir says:

    Hi Andy, This sounds like a worthwhile effort. I can see the literary value of starting “in medias res” with Massachusetts, but I hope you are also able to treat the back story of what lead up to this, the themes that defined the environment this all occurred in, e.g.:

    1. The practice of PPA applications up until that point of having vendor-defined, proprietary formats.

    2. The extent to which Microsoft squeezed the competition via their restrictive licensing on the specifications for their proprietary formats.

    3. The world of RAND standards, as practiced at the time, e.g., Ecma, etc.

    4. The notable success and lessons from the W3C’s royalty-free approach to web standards.

    5. The increased emphasis, especially in public procurement, on de jure standards, both at the national level, but also internationally, via Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, etc.

    When you consider that as prelude, the time was ripe for ODF.

    Today many of us think of open standards as the nature approach, the primary approach, but it wasn’t too long ago that this was the novel approach. I think the story of ODF was, in large part, the story of how this shift caught one large company by surprise.

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  8. updegrove says:

    Good to hear from you Rob; this is like a reunion of old ODF/OOXML comrades in arms (other readers may want to Google Rob’s name and ODF to see what I mean). Among other joint activities, you may remember our testimony before a committee of the Texas State legislature when there was hope that a few states would follow the Massachusetts lead.

    Good suggestions. I think that you’ll see as the chapters already written follow that I went into a great deal of context and background, although some of your conclusions are clearer now than they were when I wrote this up seven years ago. They also help explain why I set this project aside for the time being, as doing the research and writing to do the subject justice was extremely demanding.

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  9. aslam raffee says:

    Hi Andy,

    A book sounds like a great idea, I am sure that I have some of the background information somewhere for South Africa. Consider this my pre-order.

    Regards,
    Aslam

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  10. Eric L Beyer says:

    You list .mp3 as an example of an open format for music. However, unfortunately, .mp3 is not an open standard: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.mp3#Licensing_and_patent_issues

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  11. updegrove says:

    Eric, right you are. I’ve made appropriate changes to the text, and thanks.

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  12. Pingback: ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words Chapter 5: Open Standards | Andrew Updegrove: Tales of Adversego

  13. Pingback: ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words Chapter 4 – Eric Kriss, Peter Quinn and the ETRM | Andrew Updegrove: Tales of Adversego

  14. Pingback: ODF vs. OOXML: War of the Words Chapter 3 – What a Difference a Decade Can Make | Andrew Updegrove: Tales of Adversego

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