18 February 2007

OOXML hoax 2: The standard is not really open

In many comments I have read, people, especially from the FOSS community, have stated that OOXML is not really an open standard and that Microsoft controls the format.

The basics of the openness of a standard in the Intellectual Property (IP) rights. This breaks down into copyrights granted by rights to the author of a work and the patent rights which are granted to patentholders.
For OOXML is the copyrights are now in the hands of Ecma international which created and published the standard. Microsoft contributed to this but has no copyrights to the Ecma standard.
Ecma makes all it's standards available for free:
"Ecma Standards are made available to all interested persons or organizations, free of charge and copyright, in printed form and, as files in Acrobat ® PDF format."

So on the copyright side everything is covered and the standard is as open as it can be. So how about the patent rights. As a standard that originates from technology created by Microsoft the most likely party to have patents that are relevant to OOXML will be Microsoft. To make sure that the standard is not hampered by the burden of implementation which conflicts these possible patents Micrsoft has added a covenant not to sue and later added the Ecma standard to the covered formats of it's Open Specification Promise.
"Microsoft irrevocably promises not to assert any Microsoft Necessary Claims against you for making, using, selling, offering for sale, importing or distributing any implementation to the extent it conforms to a Covered Specification"
In software patents in general patent claims are the methods or system that implement an invention. So basically Microsoft cannot use it patent claim against anyone that requires their patented methods or systems to implements the OOXML format even for commercial use.
Opponent of OOXML has tried to raise the question of what it means that an implementation conforms to a specification but actually OOXML contains a section which clearly states what a conforming implementation is. Describing conformance is of course a matter for Ecma that controls the standard and is not up to Microsoft.

Another point that is often made is that Microsoft's release of its patent claim are not given for future version of the standard where it seems that Sun which has used a similar covenant not to sue on patent claims related to ODF has stated it to be for future versions as well. As the standard no longer belongs to Microsoft it would be very hard to make a statement about future versions of the standard unless they could control what exactly would be in the future versions.
But how about Sun then ?
Strangely enough Sun has made sure that it controls what is in next versions of the ODF standard. Sun's covenant not to sue hold a strange provision that makes sure that for quite a while to come their control over OpenDocument development is secured. Their CNS is limited to: "any subsequent version thereof ("OpenDocument Implementation") in which development Sun participates to the point of incurring an obligation". So Sun's covenant only applies to future version if they participate in development. So if Sun's does not like the development of ODF it can hold up the development of the standard until there is certainty that it does not violate any of sun's patents.

This is quite a big deal. Let's say that Microsoft were to start using ODF (as unlikely as it seems atm) and joined the OASIS TC to help adding an Office database format to ODF. But then Oracle buys up Sun and all it patents and they decide that they don't like a database format added to ODF. Then they could severely block any development and mayby halt the ODF development for years if not alltogehter. This makes it extremely unlikely that Microsoft will give full support to ODF while Sun still hold control over the development.

Because MS has not releases it's claims for future version it has similar control over OOXML as Sun does over ODF. However there is a big difference. Microsoft needs development of the Office format as it is vital to it's core business unlike for instance Sun or IBM.
They need a certain amount of control over the Office format development as if they did not have such control then their competitors would find it easy enough to stifle further development of MS Office technologies and make it easier to catch up.
For Microsoft to not develop newer versions of OOXML or even going back to a closed format in MS Office would be like shooting themselves if the foot.

To conclude I would say that OOXML is an open standard in almost the same way that ODF is open.

The advantage of ODF might be that it will have a broader group of development support (incl. Sun of course) whereas OOXML has the advantage that they have the market leader supporting any new development which can therefore be fairly quick and implementation of a new version can be very rapidly expanded to a wide customerbase which makes it interesting for commercial support.

The Wraith

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sun have given an assurance which covers future additions to ODF, which MS have not done.

Also, the Ecma charter is clear that the format must be compatible with Office 2007, and MS will not relinquish control until (if) it's ISO approved.

The Wraith said...

If you would have read the assurance by Sun in their ' covenant not to sue' you can see that it only covers future additions of OpenDocument if Sun participates.

http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/office/ipr.php

That means that if Sun refuses to participate then ODF developement is in big trouble.

Anonymous said...

The reason people say OOXML isn't open isn't just because of patents, its because (despite its length) the specification doesn't contain enough information for anyone to create a "compatible" Office suite where compatibility is defined as being able to actually display all of users' documents the same as MS Office does. This is widely perceived as Microsoft's intention: That users will open their docx files in a competing product, see them displayed incorrectly, and conclude that switching away from Microsoft would result in them having to manually reformat all of their documents.

The Wraith said...

I think that the standard provides enough information to provide interoperability on documents.

However both ODF and OOXML will leave a lot of things implementation specific such as what to embed and how. I agree that you cannot get full 100^ MS Office fidelity from using MS Office OOXML files in another implementation just from the standard specs. However I think the same goes for ODF.

I do owever think the specs allow full access to the Office specific data stored in the file and allow for high interoperability fidelity in less complex documents.

The fact that even simple much simpeler webformats can't be made into 100% interoperable standards proces that that should not be a goal for these much more complex and extensive specs.

Office suites you pick for funtionality. Not for format. Only an idiot chooses an Office suite because of the format it uses. However you could have some demands for the format.
The format however should support some interoperability as Office documents are often exchanged (genrally simple documents) and it should provide good access to the data so that the obscured data cannot create a vendor lock-in or long term data loss ehich could be a concern to especially governments.

For instance complex document contaning macro's or activex or java elements are rarely ment for interoperability. Those are mostly part of business applications and stay within a single organisation using all the same Office suite.

annerose said...

These comments have been invaluable to me as is this whole site. I thank you for your comment.

FreeDisk said...

So... how about autoSpaceLikeWord95 or useWord97LineBreakRules?

The Wraith said...

@freedisk
What about them ?
Those are items identifying possible issues with documents converted from old binary office document versions.

I notice opponents crying their lungs out that those are not described enough or that it does not belong in a standard.
As for the description. You can actually check what the issues are in the old versions of MS Office. Most opponent state that it is impossible to render them but this is weird because the entire spec is not about rendering. So any implementation can render those item according to their own wishes (or not bother) just like they can with all other parts of the specification.
As for such items not belonging in a standard. People should not bury their heads in the sand. There are billions of existiing MS office documents out there and if those are converted people will want to know if those documents have conversion issues and/or which document should be checked and such compatibility items make it much easier to deal with converted documents and identify possible problems.

FreeDisk said...

Well, let me ask you this then: if the OOXML standard is so great, why does Microsoft have to force it upon the market? There's obviously a lot of arguments and resistance. Why do they have to resort to 'buying committees' like they did in Sweden, Iceland and other countries?

If something is good, people will recognize it. OOXML has some good elements to it, but it's not ready.

I also believe that an argument such as 'but ODF does it too' or 'look what Sun is doing' is not a valid one. Even if the Sun/ODF and Microsoft/OOXML relationships would be exactly alike, I would argue that we do not repeat mistakes. So if there are serious shortcomings or flaws in ODF, we should not accept the same flaws in OOXML, simply because it wants to be an ISO standard.

The Wraith said...

I think you are sadly mistaken there. Micrsoft does not have to force this standard opun the market. The market parties actually want this format and prefer it over for instance ODF.

The people opposing this format are either competitors of Microsoft or free software supporters. They think that ODF can break MS monopoly in Office software but market requirements are more more focusssing on compatibility and easy transition.

So please don't wave around your claims of arguments and resistance originating from the market. Actually from all comments that were submitted to ISO more than two thirds were nearly identical copies of comments submitted by MS competitor IBM.

How many comments do you think
were submitted by marketparties not competing with Microsoft ? Having looked at the submitted comments it seems less than 1% of comments are actually submitted of independant market sources that do not produce competing Office software or organisations in the free and open software community.
About 10% of comments are actually originating from the ISO national bodies themselves and 90% are submitted by those competitors and FoSS organisations.