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Short-Term/Long-Term: The Battle of OOXML

Aug 31, 2007, 22:30 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

It was, for me, a fascinating study of short-term versus long-term as I watched the proceedings surrounding the standardization process of Microsoft's Open XML document format unfold this week. But then, I am easily fascinated.

The short- versus long-term argument is something that I see occur in history time and again. People continually opt for short-term gains while ignoring the long-term impacts of their decisions.

There are so many examples of this, I hesitate to mention them, for fear of insulting the reader's intelligence. The continued choice of fossil fuels over renewable energy sources, the oppression of ethnic groups to gain control of resources, stealing something instead of making it or earning it--these are just a few examples. I'm sure you can think of quite a few on your own.

Here's one more for the list: the two-year campaign by Microsoft to get the Open XML format an international standard. This campaign reaches a milestone event this weekend, when member nations submit their official votes on whether OOXML is indeed to be a standard. I say "milestone" because no matter how the vote comes out, this is not going to be the end.

The short-term benficiary in this case is obvious: Microsoft. Getting OOOXML declared a standard is a big marketing win for them: they can call Office, their big money-maker office suite, an open-standard application set and thus cut off a big advantage OpenOffice.org has in this area now.

Of course, even if they do manage to convince people that Office is indeed "open," there's still the matter of price: hundreds of dollars versus, hm, let me think... no dollars.

The problem here is no one is thinking long-term. Again. For me, the question of what becomes a standard is: can everyone use it if the inventing party dies or disappears? If the answer is yes, then according to my basic litmus test, the technology can indeed become a standard.

It has been demonstrated time and again with OOXML, that it does not pass even this most simple test. If you read my friend Stephen Walli's blog entry that was posted on Linux Today earlier, you know that the OOXML technology is so screwed up, even Microsoft applications can't run it correctly.

So, the one thing that most governments feared: an inability to access older documents because of dependence on one company's format, is still likely to happen. More likely, since--say what you will about them--at least the current Office formats weren't broken.

Of course, Microsoft seems to be sharing the short-term gains with vendors who vote Redmond's way on the various national standards comittees. That, it sadly seems, is enough to cloud the obvious assessments of what a standard really is.

The ultimate irony about all of this (aside from the evidence that OOXML is broken)? That by being so grabby for their current customer base, Microsoft has ended up alienating them even more. They do this over and over: their history is replete with customer rebellion from programs designed to hold onto customers that much tighter. It just doesn't seem to sink in: customers want quality software to use the way they want.

Lately, Microsoft delivers neither.

Like many of you, I will be interested to see how Sunday's vote turns out. It won't be a matter of us versus Microsoft that will interest me most. I want to see the thinking of the standards committees' members: short-term or long-term?