Thursday, March 27, 2008

Kenya neutral on OOXML

With debate going on about OOXML and Kenya taking a neutral position, Dorcas Muthoni breaks down the technical jargon for easier understanding.

What is an Office Document Standard?

A standard file format that would allow office documents such as spreadsheets and word processing files to be opened by applications from different vendors.

Why Open Standards

Creating an open office file format suggests that documents created in an application that supports that file format could be opened in other applications that support it as well. E.g. A document written using OpenOffice for example, could be opened in Ms Office without affecting the layout or formatting.

With an open standard;

You can choose any operating system or application and still be able to read and edit all your old documents e.g. whether it is Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Unix.
You can collaborate with others regardless of which software they are using e.g. whether it is LotusNotes, OpenOffice, Ms Office, StarOffice, GoogleApps .
You can use any software of your choice to exchange documents within your organization, with your clients, partners, government and everyone else.
The goal of an open standard is to free corporate data from proprietary file formats so they can be accessed for years to come no matter what office software a company or government is using. Companies and governments are currently saving data in proprietary file formats, such as those written in Microsoft's Office software (.doc, .xls, .ppt, and lately .docx, .xlsx, .pptx), and locking themselves into using that software indefinitely.

A relative example is, we all develop our websites and expect to successfully access them using various browser software (Mozilla Firefox, Netscape, Safari, Internet Explorer etc). We successfully manage to do this because of HTML, XML and Browser open standardization.

The same should happen for office documents and hence definition of open document standards.

What is ODF

ODF(OpenDocument Format) an ISO standard created with the aim to provide an open XML-based document file format for office applications to be used for documents containing text, spreadsheets, charts, and graphical elements. ODF is defined via an open and transparent process at OASIS ( The Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) and has been approved unanimously by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) as an international standard in May 2006. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel ODF reuses established standards like HTML, SVG, XSL, SMIL, XLink, XForms, MathML, and Dublin Core.

ODF leaves space for all present and future vendors do implement it and makes sure that end users won't suffer from any sort of vendor lock-in. In contrast to earlier used binary formats which were cryptic and difficult to process, ODF's use of XML makes accessing the document content simple.

ODF guarantees long-term viability. The OASIS ODF TC, the OASIS ODF Adoption TC, and the ODF Alliance include members from Adobe, BBC, EDS, EMC, GNOME, Google, IBM, Intel, KDE, Novell, Oracle, Red Hat, Software AG and Sun Microsystems. Since June 2006 the ODF Alliance has already more than 300 members.

What is OOXML

A format proposed by Microsoft that comes closest to ODF in function, but it fails the test for an Open Standard in various ways, including an unclear legal status as well as inclusion of and reference to proprietary technologies. It has all signs of a vendor-specific format that only Microsoft will be able to implement completely.

Microsoft, which dominates the office software market with its Office suite, is a member of OASIS and was fully aware of the technical committee that came up with ODF. However, they opted to make Ms Office 2007 heavily reliant on XML and also initiated a parallel technical committee to develop a standard file format the MS OOXML.

Ms Office 2007 does not support ODF. What Microsoft has done is to push MS OOXML through a fast track process to have the standard certified by ISO. The standard is being reviewed by technical committees (TC) formed through national standards bodies. The TCs pass a vote through a ballot process. The ballot resolutions are then forwarded to ISO, if the outcome is greater support for MS OOXML, then the standard will be passed.

Why should we reject a proprietary standard like OOXML

We live in a digital age where paper documents increasingly get replaced by electronic records. We may even see the day we no longer use paper and pen to keep records. In this situation long-term data becomes critical. This is especially the case for legal contracts and government documents which stay valid and relevant over decades, or even centuries. Just like there were many vendors supplying paper and pens through out the history, and not a single one, so do these formats and applications which are used to make them need to be vendor independent. That is the only guanrantee of long-term access to data, even if companies disappear, change their strategies or dramatically raise their prices.
The Kenyan technical committee (hosted by KEBS) reviewing the MS OOXML standard was inappropriately constituted and is highly imbalanced. Microsoft recommended business partners to this committee and the first vote returned a yes resolution because of this imbalance. On March 19th 2008, the committee passed an Abstain resolution which Microsoft is now strongly appealing against.

Further, the MS OOXML standard is defined in 6,000+ pages and with the fast track process, it is barely possible to review the standard comprehensively. This standard must be reviewed via the regular standard process.

MS OOXML is a proposed parallel standard without a justification.
OOXML has patent issues