I’ve been following the firestorm over Massachussetts’ possible adoption of the OASIS OpenDocument XML format as their standard format for office documents with interest. The ability of governments (and indeed, all computer users) to have guaranteed access to their data beyond the lifecycle of a particular product or vendor is extremely important. Recently, Microsoft changed the licensing terms for their XML Office formats with the intent to allow others to use them in their solutions without fear of litigation. These changes have been described as “Microsoft’s most significant olive branch to date”. This could imply that Microsoft is (finally) willing to work seriously towards interoperability. But this could also suggest they’re desperate to avoid widespread adoption of OpenDocument because they would no longer have absolute control over an important “standard” document format.
It strikes me as odd that I haven’t seen any serious attempts by Microsoft to implement the OpenDocument standard. Brian Jones, an Office program manager, said that the reason for this is feature incompatibility:
The interoperability problems will start to come up if there are features that are present in one application but not present in the other application. You have to assume this will be the case since every application out there has a different set of customers that request different features. From the Microsoft point of view we have so many features we built over the years and it would be extremely unlikely that those features work exactly the same way in other applications. Believe me, there are *tons* of features in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and we have a responsibility to our customers to continue to support them.
It’s hard to fault him for that. But I find it difficult to believe that it’s impossible to implement the common features and address at least some of the major incompatibilities, while still supporting the more esoteric features of Word with their own formats. This would be the “80% solution” that Microsoft has been so good at in the past. Once that baseline is supported, they could work with OASIS over time to move towards a comprehensive standard that includes all of their features. It won’t happen right away, but incremental progress can be made with each new Office version. And with each small step, more and more customers win.
In his post, Jones does scope out the size of the formats involved — 1600 distinct tags for Word 2003 alone — and that gives some idea of the size of the job. But he does not give (and I have not been able to Google) a detailed technical discussion, or even a rough estimate, of specific incompatibilities between the OpenDocument and Office 2003 XML formats. Without that, it’s very difficult to judge whether there’s truly an insurmountable problem, or if it’s just “Not Invented Here” syndrome.