Tony Mobily [opinions]
8/10/2007

Winning the OpenDocument vs. OpenXML war

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In August 2005 Peter Quinn, now retired Chief Information Officer of Massachusetts, decided that OpenDocument was the best way to store documents with the guarantee that they would be able to be opened 10, 30, 50 years from now. For a state government, this is particularly important. He led Massachusetts toward OpenDocument and OpenOffice.org. The move, which sparked controversy and ferocious lobbying, is likely to end-up in history books (and while we’re at it, I’ll mention that history books in particular ought to be accessible 50, 100, 1000 years from now!). Quinn’s move was to create a snowball effect we have all witnessed over the past 2 years; when MA switched to OpenDocument, somebody at Microsoft realised that they had a problem—a real one—and that something needed to be done right away.

Having OpenXML (Microsoft’s standard) approved by an official body quickly, very quickly, became Microsoft’s priority. To start with, it looked like the software giant had managed to fool everybody and had things its way. Things turned out a little more complicated than that. Right now, the future doesn’t look too bright for Microsoft, as the ISO fast-tracking of OpenXML is hitting problems on all fronts; money can open many doors, but it can’t buy you broad consensus on a bogus standard pushed through via sneaky practices. Microsoft keeps managing to defend an indefensible format day after day, but it’s proving to be an up-hill battle.

However, the real war has only just started. ISO allowing Microsoft to fast track OpenXML is in itself a really bad sign: a sign of a standard body that is willing to be bent by lobbying and by the big muscles (or dollars?) of a company that has grown too big. I know Microsoft, I have witnessed computer history unfold before me for decades, and I sadly believe that OpenXML will eventually manage to squeeze through the standardisation process, and well, become a competing standard (an expression that is absurd in itself, if you ask me).

While the standardisation war is absolutely crucial, I firmly believe that the only way this battle can be won is by making sure that people use OpenDocument in their everyday life. This sounds obvious, but well, it isn’t—and it isn’t an easy goal. Here are some things that can be done to fight the battle:

Basically, members of the free software community can and should do more than just watch the fight and rest on their laurels: the more people that fight, the more likely we are to win this battle, which is anything but over. We should all keep in mind that OpenDocument might become, even in the long term, a “fringe format” that nobody actually uses. Microsoft’s monopoly on file formats, if that becomes the case, would create unimaginable damage.


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