Critics urge rejection of Microsoft “open” format

Microsoft’s attempt to get its Open XML format branded as an international standard is a ploy which could see customers lose control over their own data, according to critics.

Critics urge rejection of Microsoft

Members of the International Organisation for

Standardisation (ISO) are currently voting on the issue and a decision in Microsoft’s favour could encourage a wider adoption of the format by public-sector organisations.

Opponents of Open XML, which is the default document format in Microsoft Office 2007, say there is no need for a rival standard to the widely used Open Document Format (ODF) that is already an international standard.

They argue that Open XML’s 6,000 pages of code, compared with ODF’s 860 pages, make it artificially complicated and untranslatable.

Microsoft and others point out that multiple standards are normal in the software industry and that competition makes for better products. Microsoft also argues that its format has higher specifications and is more useful than ODF.

“More parallel standards makes for better standards. It’s good not to decide for a single standard too soon,” claims Michael Groezinger, Microsoft’s chief technology officer in Germany.

He declined to speculate on the outcome of the ISO vote but welcomed last week’s decision of the German Institute for Standardisation, an ISO member, to give Open XML a conditional “yes” vote.

Open or closed?

At the heart of the controversy are fears that Open XML is not as open as it claims to be, raising the specter that customers using the word-processing format could become reliant on Microsoft for access to their own documents.

XML, short for Extensible Markup Language, is a standard for describing data in a way that is supposed to allow it to be shared across various systems and applications.

“The absolute nightmare scenario is that Microsoft says: ‘Update your licenses or we’ll turn off your access,'” says Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) Europe.

“Access to governmental data will completely depend on the existence of Microsoft,” adds Greve, who expects Microsoft to lose the ISO ballot in a close vote.

The FSF is a US-based non-profit organisation that campaigns for computer programs that can be freely used, modified and redistributed.

Microsoft’s Groezinger denies any danger of bodies losing access to their own data. He said Microsoft had handed over control of Open XML to standards-making body Ecma, which would make it available even in the event of Microsoft’s demise.

Microsoft has also given guarantees not to pursue any patent claims against parties using, selling or distributing Open XML, although some have questioned whether those guarantees are sufficiently binding or comprehensive.

It has also collaborated with Novell to develop a tool to translate Open XML documents into ODF and vice versa. But critics say the tool cannot provide a complete translation due to the higher complexity of the Microsoft format.

Open XML is unnecessarily bloated, partly because it packs in unrelated features that lead users to other Microsoft applications, FSF’s Greve says.

“This is a classic vendor lock-in strategy,” he says. “It’s not that new, it’s not that ingenious but it’s quite effective.”

Given Microsoft’s leading market position, Open XML will become a de facto standard regardless of the ISO decision.

“The two standards may converge in the longer term, but all organizations should plan on them coexisting for at least the medium term,” research group Gartner claimed in a recent report.

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