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To read comments to this article, go here
Taking a not-ready-for-prime-time standard for a spin.... Uh Oh XML
Saturday, September 01 2007 @ 05:41 PM EDT

I think you probably will want to read Stephen Walli's article on his experiences trying to open .docx documents in Apple's Pages '08, which supposedly supports MS OOXML. It didn't work very well for him. It should help you to understand why so many countries are voting No with Comments. And eWeek tried to open PowerPoint in iWork, with similarly disappointing results. Worse, a Groklaw member tried opening and saving a document from Word 97 in Office 2007 and that didn't work either.

Keep in mind that Microsoft folk like Jason Matusow have been listing Apple as having an independent implementation of their proposed standard:
A real litmus test for the viability of the ISO/IEC DIS (draft international standard) 29500 (Open XML) is whether or not there are independent implementations. The answer to this question for Open XML is an unequivocal yes. There are independent Open XML implementations based on the existing specification in applications that run on Linux, Mac, Palm OS, iPhone, and Windows.

Here's what happened to Stephen:

I am a [marvelously happy] Mac user for the past two years. That means I already have iWork 2008 loaded with the new improved Pages '08 (the Apple word processor). On the Apple web site, if I search for "office open xml" then I end up on this page (31 Aug, 2007), which tells me all about Pages '08:
Widely compatible.

Pages ‘08 supports industry-standard formats, so you can easily open documents created in other word processing applications and share documents with others. Whether they’re using a Mac or a PC.

Open for business.

Import your Microsoft Word documents into Pages ’08 with ease. Whether they’re Microsoft Office 2007 (Office Open XML) or earlier Word files, Pages will open them. Pages imports not only the text, but also the styles, tables, inline and floating objects, charts, footnotes, endnotes, bookmarks, hyperlinks, lists, sections, change tracking, and other elements of your original Word document.

COOL! I'm in! This is awesome. I want to see how well I can read interesting docx files. As it happens, ECMA International makes the Office Open XML standard available as both PDF and as docx files. Clever — it's a document format standard see, and so they've provided it in its own format. Perfect.

So I download the .docx version of ECMA-376. All 5 parts of it. And I open "Part 1 - Fundamentals" and immediately get told some warnings occurred...

The file mostly looks good, but not quite as clean as the PDF image with the other font (Consolas?). And clicking on the first warning (about the unsupported field) gives me NO additional information to understand what/where the error might be. Now this is what we in the standards industry call "a quality of implementation issue". Clearly Apple has not done a good job. Get used to hearing this phrase a lot in the press — I'm predicting Microsoft will be forced to apply it liberally to their partners that helped them win votes and helped with the marketing message.

Then I notice the paging problem. I have no idea why, but there seems to be page drift between the PDF and .docx versions....Oh, and there are line numbers in the PDF that don't appear in the .docx as opened by Pages '08.

There is much more fascinating stuff as he tries next to open an even larger file, and finally concludes:

I asked a friend with Office 2007 to download and open the two .docx files. You guessed it — no warnings. So we're now on the slippery slope. Apparently I can create files in Office 2007 that Microsoft marketing claims are "standard" Office Open XML that may (or may not) use proprietary extensions. Or maybe Apple did a really bad job. How would a government customer interested in preserving documents know? But it gets worse. The Office 2007 pagination perfectly matched the PDF version. And there are line numbers in the Office 2007 version just like the PDF version.

Ooops.

I'm betting the average business or government office person saving a file won't think twice about it. You see Office 2007 gives you no way to save something as "strict" Office Open XML. Not even not by default, but not at all. Microsoft's definition of "Office Open XML" appears to be .docx itself.

Indeed, even Apple's Pages '08 will only EXPORT to old Microsoft Office format (.doc) and not the standard Office Open XML (.docx) format. So I appear to have no way to generate a OOXML file from Pages '08. ...

So as an adjudicated monopoly of desktop operating systems, supplying an office productivity suite with 95+% market share, they will be able to claim instant victory for the adoption of their international standard because .docx files equal Office Open XML standard files. Oh, wait — that's what was essentially done in the IDC study published this week that was "sponsored by Microsoft"....

So where does this leave the government customer that thought they were buying an open document format for document exchange and interop? It is indeed finally time to roll out the certification machine — for everybody.

So, that should give you an idea of why people are feeling alarmed at the fast tracking of this proposed standard. Shouldn't it actually work for people who don't use Microsoft products as well as it does for those who do? Isn't that the way a standard should work, as opposed to a proprietary application? Until all the technical issues are resolved, interoperability will remain out of reach. And if a standard doesn't work, is it a standard? What does it say about a standards process if it approves a submission before it works?

It didn't work very well for Walli. I guess you could say it worked the way WordPerfect used to work on Windows -- not quite, not fully, frustratingly off, certainly not as well as Word did. At the time, everyone blamed WordPerfect. Later, other information came to light indicating that it was deliberately fixed so it wouldn't work well, leaving the impression in users' minds that Word was superior.

That may help you to comprehend why New Zealand voted No with Comments. Here's the letter the COO of the Standards Council in New Zealand sent to stakeholders explaining the vote:

30 August 2007

Dear Stakeholder

New Zealand vote on Open XML

After considerable discussion and input from key New Zealand stakeholders, the Standards Council have concluded that the New Zealand vote will be ‘no’ with technical comments on the draft ISO/IEC DIS 29500 Information technology - Office Open XML file formats Standard. This ‘no’ was cast this morning.

The Standards Council believe that the decision to publish a Standard, be it a New Zealand, Joint or International Standard should be based on having stakeholder consensus that the document should be published. If that stakeholder support is insufficient, the Standards Council contend that the document should not be published. Joint Technical Committee (JTC1) directives also specifically state that a ‘no’ vote should be submitted if there are technical problems that need to be fixed prior to publication.

The Standards New Zealand and State Services workshops, and written submissions received raised philosophical concerns such as whether there should be two international Standards covering the same subject area. They also questioned whether there should be an attempt to merge the open XML draft standard with the existing XML international Standard.

Significant concern was expressed about proprietary content that is embedded in the document. Microsoft made commitments not to sue for breach of patent. However, there was still general concern about the protection these commitments offered.

Considerable concern was also expressed about technical omissions, errors and inconsistencies within the draft Standard. Whilst some workshops participants stated that they believe these technical omissions, errors and inconsistencies could be corrected prior to publication, others were of the view that this could not occur within the time available.

On this basis, and in considering the outcomes of the two workshops, submissions and comments received, the Standards Council instructed that the New Zealand vote be ‘no’ with technical comments. This instruction allows JTC1 to attempt to resolve the technical comments. If the comments are resolved New Zealand will have the opportunity to change their vote to ‘yes’ at a ballot resolution meeting in February 2008.

JTC 1 directives describe a range of document types other than full international Standards. The Standards Council has also made a recommendation the document be considered for publication as an ISO/IEC Type 2 Technical Report. This is an alternative path should the comments submitted with the ‘no’ vote be unable to be resolved. Publication as an ISO/IEC TR would elevate the status of the document, as well as bring the document under the control of JTC1 and therefore facilitate consideration of merging the document with the existing ISO/IEC 26300.

I have for your information attached a PDF of the technical comments submitted with New Zealand’s ‘no’ vote. These comments, we believe, capture the key themes raised by stakeholders that are relevant to New Zealand. Submitting detailed comments on key themes allows better understanding, and ultimately resolution of the issues by JTC1.

Once again, on behalf of Standards New Zealand and the Standards Council I would like to thank you for your input which has contributed to our being able to make an informed vote on behalf of New Zealand.

Yours sincerely

Grant Thomas
Chief Operating Officer

You may be somewhat perplexed as to why anyone would vote Yes, with or without comments, until this thing actually works. By the way, here are the specific issues [PDF] that Standards New Zealand saw in the proposal that they'd like to see fixed. It may help others to comprehend the many technical questions surrounding OOXML, now that I hear Microsoft is telling it that only Open Source "fundamentalists" are opposed.

I have never understood the politics of name calling, but that's just not true. But even if it were, the simple truth is that it doesn't matter who raises the questions, if Microsoft and ECMA don't have acceptable answers. That is all countries like New Zealand are asking for, that the issues be addressed and solved.


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