How Microsoft changed its mind about Office XML standardization

My interview with Microsoft’s XML Architect Jean Paoli back in April was not the first time I had spoken to him. I also talked to him in February 2005. At that time Microsoft had no intention of submitting its Office XML specification to a standards body. I thought it should do so, and asked Paoli why not:

Backward compatibility. We have today 400 million users of Office, which means billions of documents. So we went and did a huge job of documenting electronically all these features and we put that into this WordML format. Well we need to maintain this damn thing, and we need to maintain this big format, we have like 1500 tags. Who is going to maintain that? A standard body? It doesn’t know what is inside of Word. That’s the problem. So we said we are going to give you a license, open and free… [Jean Paoli, February 2005].

Microsoft was forced to change its mind, because important customers (mostly governments) indicated their preference for standardised document formats. The quote remains relevant, because it says a lot about the goals of Office Open XML, which is an evolution of WordML and SpreadsheetML.

While on the subject, I also want to mention Simon Jones’ piece in the August 2007 PC Pro (article not online), perhaps a little one-sided but he does a good job of debunking some of the common objections to OOXML and exposing some of the politics in the standardisation process. He adds:

I’m not saying there aren’t any problems with the ECMA-376 standard. Nor am I saying ODF is bad. I do, however, believe OOXML is technically superior to ODF in many ways, and I want to see both as ISO standards so people can have the choice.

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