TechTracking: XML-based office document standards

Last summer TechWatch published a report on XML-based office document formats. The issue was one of standards: increasing pressure, particularly from the EU, was being brought to bear on public sector software procurement practices to only buy software that conforms to open standards. The argument is about how taxpayers’ money should be spent. In essence, that members of the public should be able to have easy access to all electronic documents published in the public sector without being required to purchase a particular software product in order to view or edit those documents. The TechWatch report looked at the on-going debate over the move away from closed, proprietary document formats used by everyday applications such as word processing and spreadsheet software.

The problem was that although everyone agreed that XML was the way forward, there was considerable controversy and technical debate over two proposed XML-based formats: Open Document Format (ODF) and Office Open XML (OOXML). The former had already been formally ratified as an international standard by ISO, whereas the latter, promoted by ECMA and based heavily on work by Microsoft, was still undergoing a process of being ‘fast-tracked’ towards standardisation. The fact that a scenario was emerging where there would be two international standards was causing considerable consternation.

The report concluded at the time that it was extremely important for HE/FE to keep a watching brief on the developments of these two standards and to start engaging with the debates. It also recommended that institutions should begin planning, pro-actively, for a switch to XML-based formats arguing that:

“although the UK higher education sector has, for a long time, understood the interoperability benefits of open standards, it has been slow to translate this into easily understandable guidelines for implementation at the level of everyday applications such as office document formats. As far as higher education is concerned, the use of office document formats has now reached a watershed.”

In October 2007 Becta referred Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading after talks had failed to secure the agreements needed in several key areas. In the interim, Becta’s advice to schools was that they should not move to Microsoft’s School Agreement subscription licensing model.

Since then things have moved on. Although ISO approved OOXML (a standard they refer to as ISO/IEC 29500) in April 2008, four countries (Brazil, South Africa, Venezuela and India) lodged appeals. This meant that OOXML was immediately ‘unratified’ pending the outcome of the appeal.

In addition to these formal appeals there have been a number of complaints about the process of standardization including:

In January 2008 the EU announced that it would investigate a number of suspected abuses of dominant market position by Microsoft and that this would include the question as to whether: “Microsoft’s new file format Office Open XML, as implemented in Office, is sufficiently interoperable with competitors’ products”.

All in all, things are not looking good for OOXML. Also in January, Becta released formal advice to the effect that schools should not upgrade to Microsoft Vista or Office 2007 and that existing users of Office 2007 should not save in Microsoft’s OOXML format. In the short term, they recommend that existing Office 2007 users should save files in .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats.