Tech 4U | A new Duel

Updated on Aug 21, 2007 06:11 PM IST

Microsoft now faces a tough tussle with giants like IBM and Sun Microsystems in winning government support for their respective formats. Puneet Mehrotra tells more.

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None | ByPuneet Mehrotra

The biggest IT giants are at war A war so huge that its magnitude spans almost the entire planet. The bone of contention is who will control your office documents to be precise, the underlying document formats that run on your computers. It is a bit like what language a national anthem will be written in. It involves pride, sentiments and high stakes.

The rivals in this high pitched battle are Microsoft on the one hand and an influential axis of IBM and Sun Microsystems on the other. The IBM-Sun axis is backing the Open Document Format (ODF) alliance. A veritable who's who of the industry is lined up, taking sides.

The issue is over document processing formats such as spreadsheets, charts, presentations, databases and word processing documents (eg: memos, reports, letters). While IBM, Sun supported Open Source ODF (Open Document Format) is already a standard, Microsoft wants its OOXML (Open Office Extensible Mark Up Language also known as Open XML) to be become a standard. ODF is already an ISO standard whereas Microsoft's OOXML is currently undergoing a standardisation process within the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO).

IBM-Sun Microsystemsbacked Open Document Format (ODF) alliance is dead against this. The first milestone of this standardisation process of ISO happens on September 2 with results of country- specific standards bodies of 123 countries being declared. BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards), India's national standards body, is entrusted with the task of formulating national standards in various technology areas. These standards are formulated through various sub-committees and panels. BIS has formulated a Technical Committee to look into the OOXML Standardisation. Also, BIS is a Participating member (P-member) in the ISO/IEC JTC1 which is the International Standardisation body on Information Technology standards. Being a P-member BIS has to vote for/against "Office Open XML File Formats" (OOXML). This has been submitted for national body voting under the "FastTrack Procedure" of ISO/IEC. BIS has to cast its vote before September 2.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. IBMSun Microsystems backed Open Document Format (ODF) alliance is absolutely against Microsoft's Open XML. While IBM's Government Programmes Executive, Dravida Seetharam described OOXML as "Misguided", Sun's Country Director, Government Strategy, Jaijit Bhattacharya called it "Technically flawed and doesn't meet its design objectives."

Interestingly while the ODF Alliance has come out openly against OOXML, Mi- crosoft isn't opposing ODE It is citing as its defence the multiple format logic. Vijay Kapoor, National Technology Officer, Microsoft India said "Microsoft supports multiple file formats in a non-exclusive manner" Vijay Kapoor goes on to cite examples across different industries such as telephony having GSM and CDMA standards. He also cites examples of different graphic formats such as jpeg, gif, tiff ete each serving a different need. IBM's Seetharam counters the multiple file logic saying, "Customers want a choice of compatible products, not a choice of competing standards. When you have competing formats, you force customers to invest in standards that may fall out of favour, or not be com- patible with others."

While Microsoft and The ODF Alliance battle it out a crucial question is what happens to the consumer. More importantly what happens to the previous file formats and how they will be carried forward. Microsoft's Kapoor says "Let the consumers decide what they want to use. Why thrust a standard on them?" On the issue of old file formats he says "Microsoft does support old formats and there is no reason why doubts are being raised in this area." IBM's Seetharam counters this saying "Uniform standards and interchangeable software applications can help organisation coordinate in times of emergency, are a hedge against inevitable software obsoles- cence, help preserve vital public records, encourage lower software costs and innovation, and help governments take back their sovereignty over electronic information that belongs to them in the first place."

The OOXML ODF debate has drawn into the battle a who's who, from industry leaders to academicians. Perhaps its academi- cians who give it a sense of neutrality Professor P. Vigneswara Ilavarasan from IIT, Delhi also author of "Software Work and Workforce: An Empirical Study in the Silicon Valley of India" says "Any day, existence of multiple 'open standards' is good for the users, especially who are in the developing countries like India." Though he does support multiple standards he goes on say " ECMA should attempt to de-link OOXML from a particular operating system or an application.

Till one sees OOXML being implemented by multiple vendors and creates OOXML documents at no or low cost, India should not favour it as an open standard. If favoured, it will result in armtwisting by a particular vendor through technologicallock-in, and seriously jeopardise India's ICT (information, communication, technology) developmental efforts." On the other hand Prof Ashok Jhunjhunwala from IIT, Madras says "Open XML standard is based on formats used by MS office for quite some time. So far the document standards were proprietary I am happy that initiative has been taken to create an open standard around it. This would allow multiple developers to develop software which uses this format. I hope that the standardisation process gets completed soon." On the issue of multiple formats, Professor Jhunjhunwala says "Multiple open standards would enable the industry to flourish better and the user would get a choice."

While ODF Alliance is putting a question mark on the "open standard" of Microsoft, Microsoft is hugely emphasising on it being an open standard now. Says Kapoor, "Earlier people said we had proprietary standards. Now we have opened up our formats. So where is the problem now?" He goes on to add that "Microsoft has gone beyond the ISO specification through the Open Specification Promise."

That Microsoft has opened up is also a point shared by people like Mark Webbink, Deputy General Counsel at Red Hat, a firm that supplies and supports standardised version of the open-source, Linux software. He reportedly said "We commend Microsoft's efforts to reach out to representatives from the open source community and solicit their feedback".

Lawrence Rosen, a lecturer at Stanford and author of, "Open Source Licensing: Software Freedom and Intellectual Property Law" also shares a similar view and sees this as "collaboration between software vendors and the open source community" The ODF Alliance definitely doesn't share the Microsoft view. Sun's Jaijit Bhattacharya counters Microsoft by saying "An open standard is one which is royalty free and has a communitybased development. There is no community participation in OOXML." The ball in now in BIS's court. It has to vote for/against OOXML. Whether OOXML wins or loses it will for sure will be a milestone in the battle of standards.

(The writer is the editor of a journal devoted to business and technology issues)

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