Microsoft accused of failure to observe Open XML standards process

XML specialist Alex Brown, who was involved in the ISO standardisation of Microsoft’s Open XML – still perhaps best known as OOXML – says Microsoft has failed to honour the commitments it made when the standard was approved. In particular, it seems little progress has been made between Office 2007 and Office 2010. The key problem is that Microsoft implemented Open XML before it was standardised. There were numerous changes made during the standardisation process, but what to do about the existing implementation? Loosely, the existing unacceptable format was given a “Transitional” status, while the more satisfactory, corrected format was called “Strict”. Microsoft promised to implement the “Strict” variant as soon as it could. Brown adds:

I was convinced at the time, and remain convinced today, that the division of OOXML into Strict and Transitional variants was the innovation which allowed the Standard to pass. Enough National Bodies could then vote in good conscience for OOXML knowing that their preferred, Strict, variant would be under their control into the future while the Transitional variant (which – remember – they had effectively rejected in 2007) would remain purely for the purpose of accurately specifying old documents: a useful aim in itself.

It is now two years since Open XML was approved, and Microsoft is on the brink of releasing a new version of Office. So does Office 2010 implement Open XML Strict? Apparently not – it’s the Transitional version. That is bad enough; worse still, according to Brown, it does not even conform correctly to that:

It is also a worrying commentary on the standards-savvyness of the Office developers that the first amateur attempts of part-time outsiders find problems with documents which Redmond’s internal QA processes have missed. I confidently predict that fuller validation of Office document is likely to reveal many problems both with those documents, and with the Standard itself, over the coming years.

Note that Brown is basing his remarks on the preview of Office 2010; we have not seen the final release yet. I can believe that Microsoft may fix some issues, but it looks vanishingly unlikely that Office 2010 will implement the “Strict” standard which ISO approved.

Brown’s remarks shed light on something I noticed when reviewing the preview:

As for Open XML, it’s notable that Microsoft neglects to mention it at all in its Reviewer’s Guide, even though this is supposedly the release that will fully implement ISO/IEC 29500. It is odd how this has gone from a cause to campaign for, to not-worth-mentioning in just over a year. To be fair, few users ever cared about XML formats themselves: it is only when documents get scrambled or fail to open that such things become important.

No wonder Microsoft said nothing about it, if in reality it has lost interest in conformance.

I think it is a good thing for Microsoft to standardise its Office formats. Selfish manipulation of standards committees on the other hand is not acceptable. One thing is for sure: if Brown is right and

without a change of direction, the entire OOXML project is now surely heading for failure.

then the company will only have itself to blame. Its nightmare will re-emerge: entire governments mandating OpenOffice for the sake of  standards conformance.

That said, and despite the hype, I regard Office 2010 as a minor release. 64-bit Excel, a few tweaks, and a first foray into browser-hosted versions. Microsoft often displays this pattern, following up a release with major changes – Office 2007, for example – with one that is really just a refinement of what went before. It is not impossible that somewhere in the corridors of Redmond a team is working on a new Office that does a much better job with the Open XML standard.

Over to Microsoft – serious about Open XML? Or just doing the minimum necessary to protect a lucrative market dominance – maybe a bit less than the minimum?

Update: Microsoft’s Doug Mahugh has replied to Brown’s comments here. I am writing separately about this.

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2 comments to Microsoft accused of failure to observe Open XML standards process

  • [Devil's Advocate Mode Activated]

    >> The key problem is that Microsoft implemented Open XML before it was standardised.

    I don’t think it’s fair to characterize this as a problem. Standards are emergent, not pre-defined, a pidgin to smooth over implementation differences. 802.11n, CSS 2.1, CSS 3, etc. have all followed the pattern of requiring actual implementations before signing off on the final standard. (When we work in the reverse direction, we end up with things that nobody needs or wants, like XHTML 2 or XForms, or we end up with standards that are not actually implementable, like HLA. Waiting for implementations assesses market need and makes errors in the standard apparent.)

    Office is an application that took over a decade to implement OpenType’s advanced typography features, and that’s a standard that Microsoft helped to create! Product teams like Office are huge, the ball for 2010 was already in motion as 2007 was released, and there are unbelievable backwards compatibility issues that they have to work with to protect their market share.

    I’ll be more apt to put my tinfoil hat on if we haven’t seen improvements by Office 2012/3.

  • tim

    @Nicholas

    No, it is not a problem that it was implemented first. It is a problem though if Microsoft agreed to revise it to conform with the revisions of a standards committee, in order to get it approved, but then does not implement the revisions.

    Maybe it will do and we are worrying unnecessarily.

    Tim