As we move forward with the standardization of the Office Open XML formats, it's interesting to look at the motivations that brought us to this point, but also to think about what is still to come. We've wanted to provide folks with easier ways to work with our formats for years now, mainly because it significantly increases the value of Office documents when they are fully documented. An open format can integrate with business processes; databases; and workflows in a much simpler and more powerful way (for more on why we made the move to open formats, read here and here). That's why we've worked so hard over the past 3 or 4 releases to invest in other formats like RTF, HTML, and XML. These new Open XML formats which will be the default format for Office 2007 (as well as work in Office 2000, XP and 2003) are the result of all that work. If you've read my blog at all you know that it's been a serious evolution and a lot of work, and I'm really excited about the potential. We already have hundreds of thousands of external developers building solutions on top of the XML formats from Office 2003 which weren't even the default formats so you can imagine how huge this move to a new default XML formats is.

One thing I've heard from a number of folks though is that they are wondering what the next steps will be for the formats once they are standardized. Well, ultimately that is up to the organization that has taken over the ownership and maintenance of the formats. We're currently standardizing the formats at Ecma international, which would mean that Ecma (which consists of representatives from a large number of companies in the industry) would own the formats as well as determine how the formats evolve. There has also been talk though of taking the formats to ISO once they have been approved by Ecma, which would mean that if ISO chooses to adopt the Open XML formats the stewardship of the formats would be theirs. We've had a number of governments indicate that they would like the formats to be given to ISO, and it's likely that after the Ecma approval that will be the next step.

A number of people have asked if the approval of ODF by ISO has an impact on the standardization of Open XML. I don't believe so given that ODF and Open XML have two very different goals in mind. Open XML was designed around compatibility with the existing base of Microsoft Office documents. There are literally billions of documents that exist today in those binary formats, and the goal of Open XML is to allow for a seamless migration from those old formats into the new XML formats. This is a huge undertaking, and it's the reason that the spec is so large. I think that given the obvious need for an open XML format that achieves these goals, and the fact that ODF was not designed for that purpose, it's clear that there isn't a direct conflict between the two formats and there is no reason ISO wouldn't want to approve and steward both formats. Rick Jelliffe, who has a wealth experience with ISO and standards has two posts that clearly call this out:

"ODF, for example, will change in no substantive way in its ISO adoption. National body comments will be added to requests or requirements for future versions. The Ecma Open XML people, so far, are being far more concilliatory in this regard: they know that a Microsoft technology doesn’t have the presumption of innocence that a Sun format does, in the minds of many.

If Microsoft/Ecma/et al manage to demonstrate to the ISO member voters that Open XML had even a first round of openness at Ecma, that it has some different use from ODF, if it supports SC34 specs like RELAX NG, and is scrupulous in its partitioning of Windows-specific hooks to another layer or namespace, I don’t see any national body rejecting Open XML, frankly. Microsoft and Ecma still have work to do in this regard, but it is just the standard kind of technical-level education/discussion/wordsmithing/re-alignment that any specification should have. "

"They are generating lots of media attention, FUD and lobbeying; but it ODF and Open XML both represent a victory for universal, ubiquitous, standard generalized markup, which is what SC 34 is in large part about. I see Gartner has estimated a less than 70% chance of ISO ratifying two XML office formats. What rubbish. I’ll know more next week.

Ultimately, it is not WG1 or SC34 that makes the decision. It is the national votes of each of the voting members of ISO: the national standards organizations like Standards Australia, ANSI, and so on. While local committees may feel that Microsoft has been conspicuous in their absense, so have the other big companies in recent years: the standards participation focus shifted to W3C and OASIS. But these committees are not stacked with anti-Microsoft (or anti-Sun) people, but with organizations who need good interchange and also need an XML retrieval for legacy documents in proprietary formats (.DOC, etc.). So I find it very difficult to agree with Gartner’s 70%; I’d put it the other way, with a 70% likelihood of success, at least.

ISO is not an anti-monopoly court. It is there to help people who want to agree on technology, providing procedures, forums and a publishing house.

But the issue of having two office standards is a fair one. I think all Microsoft needs to do is to distinguish Open XML from ODF adequately and prove that it has a credible alternative constituency who would not be served well by ODF. That there is overlap is immaterial if there is a significant difference."

For anyone who has played around with the XML formats, I'm sure you've seen that we really took seriously our goal of minimal user impact in the move to default XML formats. This included things like performance (which I've already briefly touched when I talked about spreadsheetML, tag lengths, and shared formulas), as well as full compatibility with the existing base of Office documents. I've just recently started to show some basic examples of where ODF just doesn't come through in terms of compatibility, such as with formulas, numbering formats, and highlighting (and these were just the first three things I came across... I have a growing list that I'll talk about over the coming months).

-Brian