Can Microsoft destroy OpenDocument by supporting it?

Not really news, but Microsoft announced support for the ISO OpenDocument format in the coming service pack 2 for MS-Office 2007 (due sometime in the first half of 2009).

This announcement is still relevant, partially as the actual product is still a ways off, but also because I wanted to discuss this more – and specifically what that would mean for OpenOffice.org.

I had a discussion I at work regarding ODF vs. MS-Word doc for product documentation(1), and the lack of feature parity between OpenOffice.org and MS-Word 2003 (the version we use at work).

Microsoft claim that they will support ODF(2) version 1.1, the question is whether this would be an implementation of the full spec or will it be broken in some manner.

The danger of a non-full implementation is hard to asses, but it could easily resolve to another type of embrace, extend and extinguish (or maybe embrace, cripple and extinguish).

The problem I think would be that with a non-complete or simply non-compatible (with OpenOffice.org) implementation, we would be left with the exact same problem as using Microsoft .doc as an interoperability format – each implementation treat some features slightly differently and as a result a document can get really messed up when loaded in an application other then the one it was created in. This would negate all the benefits of using an open, maintained, agreed upon and standardized format as a way to store documents in a portable and future proof way.

I’m sure there will be people who will quickly note that the same problem must also appear with other open-sourcw implementations of OpenDocument, for example – KDE’s KOffice implementation of ODF, but this is hardly the same: open source software evolves so much faster then proprietary software (and specifically Microsoft’s) that if there are any inconsistencies between open source implementations of the standard then these will be fairly swiftly ironed-out until we have a standard conforming level playing field.

This can not be the same with the MS-Office implementation of the same standard – look how long it will take Microsoft to release an initial implementation from the moment of declaration – easily a year. And there sure to be bugs and missing features from the implementation – there always are, also in free software. Even if Microsoft are seriously committed to have a compatible implementation of ODF, it would likely take them years to achieve this (for an example to illustrate the type of time-lines I’m talking about, just check when will the version of office that will support the OOXML ISO standard be released – they claim that “MS-Office 14” will come out at 2010 – and they need only finish the already quite complete implementation – according to Microsoft – of their own standard!).

Worse – Microsoft possibly have no intention of ever fully and completely implement ODF (in a compatible manner): they might figure it is worth their while to only introduce crippled or differing implementation – they can still claim they implement ODF according to governmental bodies’ demands, but in effect interoperability would still be the hit-and-miss it is now with the .doc format. At this point the OpenOffice.org project will have only two options: let Microsoft win that round and let them grab the “interoperable document storage” market with another non-compatible format, or start to play catch up with Microsoft again – this time with their own format – and bastardize the ODF standard in the process, forgoing any chance of having a full implementation of an open standard across a range of compatible products that compete on features and not on vendor lock-in.

Unfortunately, either way OpenOffice.otg goes in the probable case of Microsoft presenting a castrated ODF support, it spells a victory for Microsoft’s OOXML standard as the only true cross-vendor fully compatible format as this is the only ball game Microsoft is willing to play – either it can set the rules in its favor or it has to cheat..

[Note: I’m in Eilat at the moment and this post was written completely using my P1i cellular phone where I don’2 have a spell checker, so please forgive me for any glaring typos]


  1. my conclusion BTW was that MS-Word is not applicable for writing technical documents regardless of the file format []
  2. OpenDocument Format []

One Response to “Can Microsoft destroy OpenDocument by supporting it?”

  1. Things n’ Stuff » Blog Archive » Embrace, Cripple and Extinguish:

    […] Well, guess what – they did botch that and while Rob Weir takes a Hanlon’s razor view on this, I can only say: “Told you“. […]

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