Microsoft's Gift to Open Standards

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Long-time readers of this blog will recall the bitter fight over the submission of Microsoft's OOXML formats to the ISO. To the dismay of most people in the world of open source, a compromise was reached that enabled Microsoft to claim that OOXML was being approved. Here is how Alex Brown, who played a crucial role in the standardisation process, describes it:

The key breakthrough of the revision process was the splitting of the specification into two variant versions, called “Strict” and “Transitional”. The National Bodies confined all the technologies they found unacceptable to the Transitional format and dictated text to be included in the standard intended to prohibit its further use.

I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today, that the division of OOXML into Strict and Transitional variants was the innovation which allowed the Standard to pass. Enough National Bodies could then vote in good conscience for OOXML knowing that their preferred, Strict, variant would be under their control into the future while the Transitional variant (which – remember – they had effectively rejected in 2007) would remain purely for the purpose of accurately specifying old documents: a useful aim in itself.

But that approach was predicated on one central assumption: that Microsoft would update its products to support the Strict variant that was approved by ISO. Here's Brown again:

In its pre-release form Office 2010 supports not the approved Strict variant of OOXML, but the very format the global community rejected in September 2007, and subsequently marked as not for use in new documents – the Transitional variant. Microsoft are behaving as if the JTC 1 standardisation process never happened, and using technologies (like VML) in a new product which even the text of the Standard itself describes as “deprecated” and “included […] for legacy reasons only” (see ISO/IEC 29500-1:2008, clause M.5.1).

In other words, Office 2010 does *not* support the ISO standard, whatever Microsoft might have us believe.

This is truly staggering – not so much that Microsoft should so publicly thumb its nose at the ISO and the entire standards-making community, but that in doing so, it confirms all the worst predictions that many made at the time. It suggests a level of arrogance that is breathtaking – that having obtained the coveted and presumably irrevocable ISO approval, having won its little game, it just doesn't care what anyone thinks.

That is mistake, I think, because it means that even the ISO may finally wake up to fact that it was used, and that – as many of us pointed out – its standard-making process has been tainted by the whole OOXML saga. It is a mistake, too, because it means that when the European Union talks about open standards (assuming it does), people can point out that Microsoft Office does not support such standards, but an inferior, deprecated variant.

There's little we can do about the fact that the ISO standard has been granted, but we can make sure that people fully understand what has happened here. In that sense, Microsoft's actions are truly a gift to all those promoting truly open standards.

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