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The Battle of Standards

Picture it like a World War between two powers. Microsoft is pitching for the Open XML-based document standard for computer files, while IBM is leading the other side for the Open Document Format… We explain the politics of it all. Read on...

india Updated: Feb 26, 2008 23:07 IST

If you use recently upgraded software, you may have noticed that the world’s favourite word processing application, the Microsoft Office, now saves your document in .docx format. If you have been wondering what’s the extra “x” all about — that is the mark of the controversial Open XML format for electronic documents that Microsoft is trying to make the globally accepted standard through the International Standards Organisation (ISO).

This is a bit like cricket, where the pitch conditions matter for rival teams and alter the course of the game. The ISO is playing the groundsman.

The format game has pitted the biggest IT giants in a war. While Microsoft is on the one side, the Open Document Format (ODF) Alliance led by IBM-Sun Microsystems besides giants like Google, Oracle and many more are on the other side.

The battle has extended to India, where industry chambers like Assocham are among those taking sides. Thus far, both the Bureau of Industrial Standards (BIS) in India and ISO at the global level have not been in favour of Microsoft’s XML standard. So what is the big deal?

Importance of Standards
Standards help smooth manufacturing and services. Like GSM and CDMA standards in telephony and bottle sizes in soft drinks, standards are everywhere. In computer use, standards help maintain interoperability -- documents formatted to common principles — much like language scripts or grammar — can be accessed and used between people and machines. Besides, they aid in innovation and also help bring about a common platform of sensibility.

“Standards help in ensuring that consumers are free from being caught up with one single application for word processing as it provides guaranteed inter-operability between applications. Moreover, since word processing is something that has strong network effects, it will automatically gravitate towards a single standard,” says Jajit Bhattacharya of Sun Microsystems.
The IBM-Sun alliance is pleading for a single standard for word processing — ODF.

Says Zaheda Bhorat, Open Source Programs Manager, Google, “Standards are important because people expect the products they use to just work. Standards help make sure that whether you're playing a CD, calling family or friends on a different phone network, or opening a document, you’re able to do what you want to do.” IBM’s Ashish Gautam hits the nail on the head when he says, “When someone sends an electronic document to a friend, and it is saved in a proprietary-standard format, the recipient cannot easily open the file.”


Currently opening a .docx or any of the Open XML files can be a daunting task if you don’t have the latest version of Microsoft Office. Not only is it highly inconvenient, there is little support available for it outside of Microsoft’s system. In other words, when you create a document in Open XML, chances are that the other party may or may not be able to access it depending on various factors like availability of new plug-ins and the latest software. Microsoft clearly disputes this. Vijay Kapoor of Microsoft India mentions several applications like iPhone, Mac Osx, Adobe Buzzword and word processors like OpenOffice Novell Edition, WordPerfect Office X3 (beta), Dataviz Docs, NeoOffice support Open XML.

Migration and Backward Compatibility
Another area from the consumer perspective is backward compatibility. What happens to all our documents that have been created over the past decades? From the government perspective, there could be millions of land records, for companies it could be thousands of documents. Microsoft’s Kapoor says “Back compatibility is an important issue that has been looked into. In other words, all past documents can not only be migrated but also be accessed.” He mentions of Microsoft migration tools and emphasizes on “Open XML bringing forward old formats with full fidelity.”

Microsoft’s Kapoor gives a very interesting insight: “Google and IBM have done a superb implementation of Open XML!”
Google and IBM are officially in the other camp that opposes Open XML and Microsoft in every forum but are also said to be actively developing compatible applications.

“Google has implemented Open XML so beautifully. It is impossible somebody do it without an understanding of the format,” Kapoor says. But Google’s official words are at odds with this.

“After technical analysis, we believe OOXML would be an insufficient and unnecessary standard, and we respectfully request international standards bodies to vote "no" on OOXML as a proposed standard,” Google’s Bhorat said.

IBM’s Ashish Gautam eches the view: “A large number of people believe that Microsoft's format is technically flawed, restrictive, not adequately aligned with existing standards, or not conducive to broad third-party support.”

Why then are IBM and Google building applications around Open XML? It could be because the standards are a game in which players need to talk to each other. A bit like how India’s Independence leaders like Mahatma Gandhi mastered English — so they could fight British rule!

Document Socialism
It is a bit like an exclusive club not allowing many customers but suddenly waking up to social pressures to ease restrictions. Microsoft has now opened up to others stuff earlier covered by patents.

From a consumer perspective where is the future of document processing headed? Will multiple standards in documents lead of chaos? IBM’s Ashish Gautam cites the example of the tsunami fiasco where relief efforts were slowed down because of incompatibility of multiple formats.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s Kapoor links multiple formats to innovation. He cites the example of telephony where multiple standards like CDMA and GSM have only benefited the end consumer.

He also talks about multiple formats in images giving the end consumer the choice to choose from. Sun Micro’s Bhattarcharya adds an element of nationalism to standards “In the case of word processing, we are not talking about any ordinary consumers but those who will form the future of the nation, that is the children. However, these children may be denied access to computer literacy if a document standard is chosen that is not open and that is biased towards the vendors that supply the applications rather than being pro-people.”