Dancing on a pin: Microsoft belatedly answers Open XML critics

Microsoft’s Doug Mahugh has replied to accusations from ISO expert Alex Brown that the company is doing little to implement its own Open XML standard. The issue is that the XML document formats in Office 2007 are, from the ISO perspective, meant to be “Transitional” – a compromised format designed to interoperate with existing binary documents – and that the standard Microsoft is meant to be implementing is “Strict”, an improved standard that can more easily be implemented by others.

Mahugh says:

I’d like to state clearly and unequivocally at this time that we will support reading and writing of ISO/IEC 29500 Strict no later than the next major release of Office, code-named Office “15.”

He doesn’t say whether or not it “Strict” will be the default in Office 15, which we can expect to see in around 2013. This is the real pain-point for users: if the default changes, the result is the frustration of sending or receiving unreadable documents.

Microsoft is dancing on a pin. On the one hand, it wants to convince governments, academics and other standards-sensitive organisations that Microsoft Office does the right thing. On the other hand, the benefit to users of breaking document compatibility for the sake of ISO compliance is rather invisible.

Document compatibility is the thinking behind having read-only support for Strict in Office 2010 (and coming to Office 2007). If Microsoft can get read-only support widely deployed, then in 2013 the Strict documents that start to circulate will not be so problematic.

The approach is not completely unreasonable; these things take time. That said, Microsoft’s communication of its intentions has been poor. Further, Mahugh does not answer the parts of Alex Brown’s post that address quality:

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.

My perspective on this as a journalist is that Microsoft did not consider Open XML or standards compliance even worth a mention in its publicity so far and its detailed reviewers’ guide for Office 2010. That suggests it is not much of a priority.

So full support in 2013 or thereabouts. My expectation is that by then saving and editing documents online will be more common than it is today, and that the assumptions the Office team seems to make about the steady progress of its huge desktop suite are likely to prove faulty.