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Users Get to Decide their Document Formats

Published: June 15, 2007 | Updated: June 15, 2007

With ISO/IEC having standardized Open Document Format (ODF) 1.0 and considering standardizing Ecma Office Open XML (Open XML), there is a lot of public discussion about document formats and whether the world should begin to focus on only one format or continue to see multiple formats developed and used over time. Microsoft believes that users should be able to choose among formats and pick the one that best meets their needs. We also believe in encouraging the continued evolution of computing and data formats. And we support the ratification of Open XML in ISO/IEC. There are several reasons for these views:

Users have always had choice among formats and should continue to do so going forward. Data formats have been around as long as computing. They reflect the varying capabilities and functions of different computing systems and have evolved as those computing systems have evolved. Punch cards were once commonplace, but you wouldn’t think to use them today. In the decades since their use a wide range of formats (TXT, PDF, HTML, and DOC, just to name a few) have become popular because they meet specific user needs and tap into new computing capabilities. The creation of XML-based document formats continues this evolution, and even within this category a number of formats are being developed, including ODF, Open XML and UOF. We should expect the creation of new formats in the future as technology evolves, and, as has always been the case, users should be able to choose the formats that work best for them. Microsoft has consistently supported choice, so it took no steps to hinder ISO/IEC’s ratification of ODF 1.0 and supported ODF 1.0’s addition to the American National Standards list. Microsoft will continue to support recognition of ODF 1.0 and other formats on such lists around the world as long as doing so in no way restricts choice among formats.

Open XML and ODF are distinct formats that serve different user needs. Some have questioned whether ISO/IEC should ratify Open XML now that ODF 1.0 has been ratified there. It is important to appreciate that these are fundamentally different formats that meet different needs in the marketplace, and the standardization and use of one does not preclude the standardization and use of the other. ODF’s design may make it attractive to those users that are interested in a particular level of functionality in their productivity suite or developers who want to work with that format. Open XML may be more attractive to those who want richer functionality, the ability to integrate business data into their documents by defining their own document schema, or a format that was designed to be backwards compatible with existing documents. This is not to say that one is better than the other – just that they meet different needs in the marketplace. It is not unlike how some people wanting to travel from one place to another will choose an automobile and others will choose to fly. Both are modes of transportation but they are fundamentally different and serve different communities, just as ODF 1.0 and Open XML are both document formats, but are fundamentally different, meeting different needs among users.

Open XML, ODF, UOF and other formats can and will coexist. The good news is that customers who want to work with multiple formats can do so now and into the future. If someone who works primarily with ODF 1.0 wants to work with Open XML-based documents, or vice versa, they can do so through translators, such as those that are being developed through open source community projects sponsored by Microsoft. A German national standards body (DIN) working group is defining how to translate between ODF 1.0 and Open XML to support interoperability between them. Microsoft is working with Chinese entities on another open source community translator project between Open XML and UOF. A growing list of companies, including Microsoft, Novell, Xandros, Linspire, Corel and Dataviz (on the Palm operating system) recognize the desire of users of their software to work with multiple formats and are giving those users the tools they need to do so. In short, users will easily work with multiple formats.

Open XML is highly relevant. The usage of Open XML is expanding rapidly. IT companies are increasingly choosing to work with it and users are recognizing the value that it brings to their operations. The new wave of computing driven by Open XML will not happen overnight, but it is off to a strong start and there is every reason to be optimistic about the positive impact it will have on computing in the future. See www.openxmlcommunity.org and www.openxmldeveloper.org.

Information technology users and the vendors that serve them have asked that the Open XML format be specified, standardized and broadly available for free. They also want to choose the formats that work best for them in a particular case, while having the ability to work with multiple formats in their chosen application. This is all happening now. The many participants in the Ecma International standardization committee (including Novell, Intel, Apple, Toshiba, the United States Library of Congress, the British Library, BP, Barclays Captial, Essilor, NextPage and Statoil) did a great job in developing the specification before it was adopted as an Ecma International standard. ISO/IEC is now in a position to ratify that strong work and provide additional choice among the formats that it recognizes. We and a growing community of users and vendors support that step.

Tom Robertson
General Manager
Interoperability and Standards

Jean Paoli
General Manager
Interoperability and XML Architecture