The other OOOXML/ODF fight

How to ballot. Which ODF? Which OOXML?

By Rick Jelliffe
February 26, 2010 | Comments: 3

The noisy and very visible fight over the standardization of OOXML at ISO took attention away from what could have been a bigger fight in which the ODF/OOXML antagonists (and me) were on the same side, and the other side basically didn't show up.

The subject? Whether to adopt an XML-in-ZIP format in the first place, or just stick with .DOC, .XLS, .PPT and .RTF.

This, in the scheme of things, should have been the monster battle, with many pros and cons debated. But everyone was diverted as the OOXML sideshow blew up. Where was the debate (and the forum for debate) from people who were happy with the way things were? I wonder if MS General Manager for Interoperability Jean Paoli wakes up every morning thanking the Lord that the ODF-ers allowed the whole debate on file formats to be re-framed in terms of which XML-in-ZIP format rather than whether anyone wanted one. :-)

Every now and then I still see rumbles about it: for example, the dreaded Mary-Jo Foley has a recent column on the Office ballot screens:

"My personal view would be that ballot screens are not helpful (i.e. that the Windows 7 browser ballot is a waste of time and EU taxpayers' money!)," said Mark Wilson, a solution architect with a leading global systems integrator. "For many organisations the issue is more about compatibility between legacy document formats (e.g. the old .DOC) and the newer OOXML files (e.g. .DOCX) than it is with distractions from competing formats."

I agree with WIlson. If Microsoft really does "support many different formats" with Office, why not make all of the available formats a choice on this ballot screen? Anyone think the inclusion of this new screen will do anything -- positively or negatively -- for customer choice within Office 2010?

Mr Wilson's blogs have two good entries that encapsulate the problem: Open XML documents driving me insane on the Mac and One of the reasons why OpenXML document formats are so useful. (I liked his take on the ODF/OOXML sideshow too.)

The move to any new open format was always going to cause these problems and produce these benefits. There is no way around them, apart from supporting plurality, even in the medium term. Before, there were 6 or 7 formats that everyone had to support, now there are two more (and we can presume that the bottom two will fall off the list.) And even saying that there are 6 or 7 hides that formats like .DOC have gone through maybe 30 different major versions over time (upgrades, platforms, locales, security patches.)

Support for a plurality of document formats is an optimization at the micro level (you can choose the appropriate feature set or best quality/most reliable format for a particular purpose), a suboptimality at the mid level (extra work and coordination costs), and an optimization at the macro level (enabling competition between formats, alternative competitive technical streams, shifts in application responsibility, prevention of 'single-point-of-failure', prevention of monoculture, etc). It is not all plain sailing!

Behold the future!

I have written before, that I think ultimately the pluralism will move inside the ZIP archive, so that
    a document may be ODF and OOXML at the same time (I'd see this happening bottom up, so that they'd share ZIP, packaging, JPEG, PNG, Dublin Core, MathML, real TinySVG, GRDDL metadata, and so on)
  • through graceful degradation through alternatives and more flexible conceptions of how schemas handle versioning,
  • through support for OOXML namespace elements in ODF, as well as
  • moving externally, so that more of a document format is based on downloadable codecs using Adaptability Standards (which get added to the standard texts if they get traction in a market that benefits from having a standard).

So when I see the sample ballot screens, what strikes me is that .DOC, etc. and .HTML are not on the list. Now, I am happy that both the choices are Open (enough?) Standards, and ISO Standards too. And I have certainly drunk the XML-in-ZIP kool-aid (though I don't think OOXML and ODF in their current forms should be considered the last word in what we need.)

I think it would be a strategic and terrible mistake, to have the old formats on the list. But it does disturb the little liberal voice in my head that there has been basically no debate on keeping the old formats. (Was that what was behind some of the wrong-footed complaints that the standard explaining the OOXML XML-in-ZIP format was not actually a standard explaining the .DOC format?)

Or am I wrong here? Is it that the advantages of open XML-in-ZIP formats and the disadvantages of the old binary formats had become so obvious that there really was no contest, by the time push came to shove?

How to ballot

Since we are on the topic, what guidelines might there be for selecting which default save-file-format to use in Word, Open Office, etc? I think the bottom line is that unless you have some compelling external reason, you are better off selecting the native format of the application as the default save format: on Office this is OOXML, on OpenOffice this is ODF.

It has nothing to do with the relative virtues of OOXML and ODF, and everything to do with their absolute support for your platform's features: when you re-open a document, you want your editing experience to be exactly the same as the last session. Exporting a document to a format with a different feature set loses the differences.

In more detail, I'd suggest something like this:

  • If you are in an organization that wants to maximize the chances of communication to the public, provide the documents in multiple formats, and at least as ODF. But this does not determine which choice the ballot should be.
  • If you are in an organization that mandates a format, especially for public use, use that.
  • If you have a need to fit into a particular processing chain with your document formats, use that
  • If you want to make sure your documents only use the most vanilla features (for archiving rather than facsimile purposes, for example, or to make sure that simpler software can use the documents), select ODF.
  • You are intending to ween yourself or you organization off MS products like Office and into an open source SOE, for example OpenOffice or KOffice: select ODF
  • Your SOE platform is Linux, but you still have some Windows systems floating about: these may have Office 2010 as part of some bundle, but there is no desire to use special features or be locked into them: select ODF
  • if you need to use particular features of your system, use the native format (e.g. select ODF for Open Office, select OOXML for Word)
  • If you need to use the particular features, but also have to send data in a standard format, save as both (tedious, and error-prone, I know!)
  • If you have strong opinions on openness and want to make a statement, choose the format on those grounds.

So what am I doing on my PCs?

On my PC at my office, I don't actually have a version of Microsoft Office installed. Never have. I do have the free OOXML readers installed. But otherwise, because I try to only use platform-neutral software, I will just save using the default native encoding (I use the distro of Open Office that Novel bundled together, so that is ODF.)

On my laptop, I do have Office 2007. If I upgrade sometime and have to select on this ballot, I definitely would choose OOXML. It makes no sense to get rid of the kinds of features I like (such as SmartArt, which is a real breakthough for a consumer application in getting towards structured diagrams as well as structured documents). However, I would still try to send documents as ODF, when I am sending them, as I currently do.

Which ODF? Which OOXML?

However, I do have a concern of my own about the ballot dialog box on Office 2010 to select your default save format. We know that ODF and OOXML have several versions. We know that MS will not be putting out an ODF 1.2 export before there there is an official ODF 1.2. And we know that it will be supporting the most recent version of the OOXML standards, with the same time frame constraints: there are logs between standardization, development and release.

But both ODF and OOXML have strict and extended versions. I suspect that MS would support the extended ODF, but will it save as Strict OOXML or Transitional OOXML?

I think this is where all Microsoft's talk about standards really will come home:

  • If their default format is OOXML Transitional, then they have abandoned support for an Open Standards process: OOXML was only made a standard because of the changes that were made at the BRM. The original ECMA version of OOXML (which is the basis of Transitional) was soundly rejected, let no-one forget.
  • If they support OOXML Strict, with the kinds of proper MCE extensions, then they are still in the game.

Take VML as an example. This was a vector language implemented in IE5.5 which MS submitted as the basis of SVG at W3C, but were rolled by Adobe/IBM. The ISO process had it removed to the transitional format, so that only the new DrawingML format would be allowed in Strict. (And another thing that came out of the process was the strong support that SVG has despite DrawingML: I see that MS has now rejoined the SVG effort to some degree.)

If Office 12's default OOXML saves any graphics out as VML, then Microsoft has not met its side of the bargain. (And, I would say, this would be reason enough for a national body to decide to de-standardize OOXML as an ISO standard: why hold a wedding if the bride has run away?) All the excuses for Office 2007 and SP2 are passed their use-by dates now.

What about where Office opens an OOXML file with VML and then saves it? It should convert the data.

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But both ODF and OOXML have strict and extended versions. I suspect that MS would support the extended ODF, but will it save as Strict OOXML or Transitional OOXML?

This is incorrect. OOXML has strict and transitional conformance classes. ODF 1.2 has unextended and extended conformance classes. Transitional is not the same as extended and you should not confuse them. Remember, transitional was originally called "deprecated" by Ecma and was only renamed to "transitional" at the BRM. It was intended not for expressing extensions, but for expressing legacy behaviors needed for representing legacy documents, but which should not be used when creating new documents. This intent was clearly stated in BRM resolutions.

If one does extend OOXML, using MCE, this is orthogonal to the defined conformance classes.

The ODF extended conformance class, on the other hand, had nothing to do with legacy files. So there is nothing like ODF "transitional".

If their default format is OOXML Transitional, then they have abandoned support for an Open Standards process

Regardless of what they do with OOXML, Microsoft supports ODF, which is an open standard. So I think they can continue to tout their support of open standards, even if they continue to treat OOXML like a proprietary format that they occasionally whitewash in ISO. Of course, I hope they -- and all other ODF implementors -- continue to refine and improve their ODF implementation.

Rob: I think if you note my capitalization, your first point is unnecessary. You are free to substitute "big" and "small" for (lowercase) "extended" and "strict" if you think it matters.

"...the whole debate on file formats to be re-framed in terms of which XML-in-ZIP format rather than whether anyone wanted one."

True, indeed.

The provision of an Office ballot screen is derived from the IE precedent. I decided against involvement in the competition proceeding, so I am do not know much about the specifics, but it appears to me the ballot screen was agreed upon in a proactive manner. In general, waste of tax payer money is perceived as no sound argument in matters of law enforcement. When persons gunpoint a cash cow count on excessive reactions.

Here you find the ballot screen:
Sure it will keep the European lawyers employed. You probably noticed recent media responses from Marino Marcich.

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