The limits of standards in OOXML and ODF office suites

By Andy Oram
May 20, 2009

Nobody expected Microsoft to make its proprietary OOXML format really work with products that support ODF. Microsoft seemed to demonstrate a commitment to honest adherence to standards in a recent announcement that included an enhanced translator between OOXML and ODF. (Most of the announcement concerned a tool that determines whether XML program output conforms to OOXML.) But Jeremy Allison, a famous Samba developer and free software advocate, now pokes holes in the assertion that OOXML can interoperate with ODF.

I won't pass judgment on Microsoft's sincerity, although I find Allison's claims quite credible. Certainly I've had plenty to say about the OOXML standard in the past.

But I think that even with good faith and good engineering, interoperability in something as complex as an office suite may be unachievable. This ties in with a blog I wrote a few weeks ago titled Open Cloud Manifesto: about openness, standards, and the vitality of SMTP.

I suggested there that, to be successful, a standard has to be simple and deal with an extremely well-known problem. A fine comment by Rick Jelliffe talked about the importance of understanding layers and said that a standard works when companies aren't jockeying for competitive success on that layer.

All those considerations can be applied here. Not only is an office suite massive and overflowing with different components; it has to hook into a huge number of outside pieces in its environment: the file system, a database, multimedia programs, etc.

Although I support the standardization efforts around ODF, I wouldn't blame either the ODF standardization committee or Microsoft for a failure to interoperate. We're just going to have to live with a fuzz factor.

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