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When Would You Use OOXML and When ODF? -- What is OOXML For?
Monday, April 27 2009 @ 03:01 PM EDT

Can anyone tell me what OOXML is for, other than for opening legacy Microsoft documents? What else is it for? When would you choose OOXML and when would you choose ODF, if you were, let's say, a government or a government agency?

ISO Directives, Part 2 "Rules for the structure and drafting of International Standards" [PDF], section 6.2.1 reminds us that standards are voluntary, not requirements, for you and me. But governments are in a different category. They can tell their employees what they can and can't use, what the entity will, or will not, use and in what circumstances. So when would you use ODF and when would you use OOXML in that sphere? I figured ISO should know. For ISO/IEC 29500 (formerly known as OOXML) the scope statement reads like this:

ISO/IEC 29500 defines a set of XML vocabularies for representing word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. On the one hand, the goal of ISO/IEC 29500 is to be capable of faithfully representing the preexisting corpus of word-processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations that had been produced by the Microsoft Office applications (from Microsoft Office 97 to Microsoft Office 2008, inclusive) at the date of the creation of ISO/IEC 29500. It also specifies requirements for Office Open XML consumers and producers. On the other hand, the goal is to facilitate extensibility and interoperability by enabling implementations by multiple vendors and on multiple platforms.
So, it's for the legacy documents, but it's also to "facilitate extensibility and interoperability by enabling implementations by multiple vendors and on multiple platforms." If interoperability is the goal, and for governments it is, does extensibility get in your way? What exactly does that last part mean? I understand in the commercial space what it would mean, but what about for governmental entities? When would you use ODF and when OOXML?

Ecma, when justifying the need for two standards in 2007, in view of the fact that ODF was already in existence, said this [PDF]:
Although OpenXML and ODF are both intended to describe office documents, each is designed to satisfy different user requirements. OpenXML has been designed to be capable of faithfully representing the majority of existing office documents in form and functionality. It is designed to replace existing binary document formats with easily accessible, open formats to meet a wide variety of user needs, formats which capture identical information yet are extensively documented, and can be implemented on a wide variety of operating systems and devices.
OK. So I get the legacy part. I always thought that ODF could do all that, if Microsoft would only have let it, but even if you accept that we really needed another standard for opening Microsoft legacy documents, is that all it's for? If not, what else is it for? It mentions interoperability but ODF does that too. What would you want OOXML for, instead of ODF, if interoperability is your goal?

I asked Alex Brown, convenor of the OOXML BRM, who is still trying to get it to actually work in the real world, when you would use OOXML (DS5900), which is now an American standard, and when would you choose ODF? Here's his answer:

It depends who "you" are. But for small software companies such as the one I work in, we'd choose OOXML (or its forebears) when the customer is using legacy MS binary stuff, or states they are using MS Office 2007 and an XML software solution needs to support that.

We'd use (or I'd use) ODF when the customer was cool with that. I tend to prefer using ODF because it's simpler to work with as XML, especially for simpler documents. But it's "just stuff" at the end of the day, just another XML flavour...

The reality is, at least in the UK, Germany and the US - where my customers are, that the vast majority of users want to use (or are used to using, or have to use) MS Office in its old, current and future versions, and so XML processing toolchains will need to work with their documents.

That may of course change, but there is a clear anticipated market requirement right NOW for OOXML -- which explains why most of the major IT markets on this planet voted in favour of it, I should think.

- Alex

I think there are other reasons, obviously, why they voted the way they did, but that didn't answer my real question, because he answered as to when *his* commercial company would choose one or the other. But what if you are a government or governmental agency? The idea of open standards in that space has to do with access, now and into the future, and interoperability. Then when would you choose one over the other in that noncommercial space?

Rick Jelliffe recently said that OOXML "is fundamentally intended to document a format for a pre-existing technology and feature set of recent proprietary systems."

Gulp. How is that a proper purpose for an "open" standard?

Well, leave that aside for the moment. Let's assume that you are a government or an agency and you really want to make sure all citizens can access documents and interface with them, including GNU/Linux users and Microsoft users? Then when would you use one or the other?

And what if you had noticed that in the past Microsoft sometimes extended standards, like HTML, and then its monopoly position ensured that no one using the unextended standard could function properly any more, and you see that OOXML allows for proprietary, undocumented extensions. How would a government ensure that couldn't happen with open formats for documents?

Does Microsoft's Sharepoint work with ODF or will we be shut out of that if we use GNU/Linux? If the latter, what good is OOXML or ODF? Even if you can put ODF documents into Sharepoint, what happens to the openness if they are stored in a proprietary container? Avoidance of lock-in is the goal, is it not? For us little people, I mean. I know Microsoft doesn't share my heart's desires.

The whole point, or one of them, of ODF and OOXML, was supposed to be making sure our kids and grandkids can access our documents someday without any proprietary barriers. But is Sharepoint a proprietary barrier, as Matt Asay has been telling us for years now, and still is? If so, if you are a governmental entity that cares about true interoperability and open standards, what do you do about that?

Let's suppose it is Microsoft's goal to ensure it controls the Internet via Sharepoint, just for the sake of the discussion. Now what? What if you are a government or governmental agency? How do you ensure that future generations have access to today's documents? Which format would you use and when? Would they have to block Sharepoint in some way to reach their goal of openness? Or what?

Here's a presentation from Microsoft back when they were first explaining why there needed to be an OOXML. It's titled Ecma TC45 - Office Open XML Formats. I see on pages 7-9 several uses contemplated, beyond just opening legacy Microsoft documents, but which of them would apply to a government?

A Vision being realized

* The XML Dream – Changing the world of Information

  • Data Interoperability at a universal scale
  • Databases, Connectivity, Services, Workflow, Documents
  • Unified Vision - Documents and Data
  • XML Community, SGML Community, ISO
  • Charles Goldfarb, Jon Bozak, Tim Berners Lee, Many others
Microsoft Confidential

* Strategic Industry Alignment XML & XML Web Services standards
* Remove barriers to enable data interoperability e.g. across Documents & Servers
* Enabler for Mobile Devices, Multiple Form Factors
* Enable new scenarios - Document and Data intertwined

Shared service oriented architecture

(fx http, XML, SOAP, WSDL, UDDI)

XML Strategy
Built –by design– for Interoperability

Imagine a World of XML Documents

* Data access via spreadsheets, documents, presentations
* Backend LOB systems focused on integration via XML
* Content in formats drive everyday business processes
* More useful web services applications
* Millions of developers
* Smart workflow management
* Powerful content management
* Auditing, tracking, regulatory requirements
* Interoperability across groups, divisions, companies, products
* Public records maintenance
* Preservation of our written digital Heritage
A wide set of interests
A wide set of users
* Industry (e.g. Oil, Optics, Aeronautics)
* Service (e.g. Banking, …)
* Digital Archival (e.g. Libraries, Public Records)
* Software & Services (e.g. Vendors, Integrators)
* Regulatory Information (e.g. Governments)
* Various sizes of organizations (multinationals, medium or small businesses, individuals)
Obviously, you can see lots of commercial uses in their vision. But my question is more focused. Let's also assume that your goal is to make sure no one is unable to communicate equally with the governmental agencies no matter what operating system he or she uses. When would you use each? I know, of course, that the solution is for Microsoft to simply publish the specifications of their legacy formats, so ODF can natively do whatever OOXML can do, but hardy har to that dream. I know that won't happen, unless someone makes them. That's the elephant in the room, I'd posit. So *now* what will work, given a proprietary determination to avoid simple technical solutions? What is the best possible solution, given the restraints?

Can anyone out there explain this to me? Microsoft folk? Anyone?

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