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

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

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

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?