The ISO is right to back OOXML

by Dale Vile

News this week that , Microsoft’s OOXML document format has been adopted as an ISO standard has sparked outcry and frustration in the anti-Redmond camp.

Many feel the arguments against ratifying OOXML were so strong that the decision suggests the ISO process is broken. Some of the objections are convincing.

The most obvious one is that a perfectly good ISO standard for storing office type documents in XML format already exists in ODF (OpenDocument Format). Microsoft should have adopted ODF rather than forcing through its own proprietary alternative.

This argument portrays ODF as clean, well structured and designed for extensibility, while OOXML is a poor foundation for the future because its confused specification has been bloated to support the features of generations of Microsoft Office.

Beyond questions of fitness for purpose, there are bigger concerns about a standards body making decisions that could perpetuate an effective monopoly – in this case, Microsoft Office on the desktop. This issue has arguably provoked the most disappointment.

But the case for the defence is that the OOXML specification is actually well structured, extensible and not a tangled mess. Also, ODF is relatively immature and incomplete.

Microsoft also asks what more can it do? It is constantly pressured to be more open, so it switches from binary to XML formats, and passes the end result to an independent standards body for analysis and control.

Both sides make some convincing points. But the exchanges have been particularly highly charged because the outcome has hard-nosed commercial implications.

We have witnessed a no-holds-barred political battle between two big industry power bases, with the foot-soldiers from the open source community unwittingly lending their support to a thinly veiled corporate commercial cause.

The sad thing is that the relevance of all this to users of IT has been lost, or at best distorted. The anti-Microsoft camp in particular has put words into the mouths of customers in a divisive manner that often misrepresents mainstream views and priorities.

We hear, for example, that customers feel as if Microsoft is holding their data to ransom by keeping it locked up in proprietary formats. It is also claimed that everyone would dearly love to break free from the shackles of Microsoft Office and take onboard more open alternatives.

Neither of these claims is accurate. Apart from feedback we receive from a minority of very vocal activists, we see little evidence in our research to corroborate such sentiments.

What we actually find when we research this area is that the overwhelming majority of business users are actually quite content with Microsoft Office and are not particularly motivated to move away from it at all.

Whether this is because they regard it as the best solution available – or think moving away from what is effectively a de facto standard for office tools in the Western world will be more trouble than it is worth – doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that IT departments and business users have more pressing things to worry about than fixing something they don’t consider to be broken.

The key fact is, most of what’s in Microsoft Office has been used by someone somewhere in the past and will continue to be important to someone in the future.

OOXML is thus a natural vehicle for organisations to look to as they drive more towards XML-based storage for documents.

OOXML is the default format for files saved in Office 2007, so we might as well accept it will become a fact of business life, whether we consciously decide to adopt it or not.

Against this background, it is better that a pervasive file format is managed in the safe hands of a standards body.

If ISO standardisation had been successfully blocked, Microsoft would have suffered some damage in its public sector business, and the rest of the market would have been left reliant on a format controlled in a proprietary manner.

Put another way, the anti-Microsoft lobby seemed willing to trade mainstream security for an opportunity to inflict damage on a competitor.

Thankfully the right decision was arrived at. It would be nice to think that common sense and mainstream customer interest counted for something along the way.

But the reality is we were probably just lucky this time that the political shenanigans came out in the customer’s favour.


Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.