The ISO "fast track" vote on approval of Microsoft's OOXML document specification happens next Monday (2 Sep.), and news is breaking fast and furious as various countries report out early. An interesting bit of technical experimentation was published in the past week in the shadow of the vote. It shows something more pragmatically damning than all of Rob Weir's hard work digging through faults in the OOXML specification.
The work is published as a set of experiments. The first experiment takes a trivial spread sheet created with Microsoft Excel 2007. The next step is to unpack the Excel generated "standard OOXML" and make a trivial edit to it and repack it. Excel then complains violently about the result (i.e. to the point of not reading the document).
This is a catastrophic failure on two fronts for Microsoft's "standard":
- It means Microsoft Office DOESN'T ACCEPT WELL FORMED OOXML documents not produced by Microsoft Office. This would be very bad for all those customers that believe the marketing and think they're buying a product implementing a "standard" that will [someday maybe] be supported by multiple implementations.
- It means the Microsoft OOXML specification has sufficient problems in what it isn't saying in that implementors can't implement it. (Changing a one character field in human readable XML with an editor is about as basic as it gets for implementation.)
Game over. A standard that can't be implemented is WORSE THAN USELESS. It really demonstrates that this standard they rammed through ECMA is nothing more than a vendor's product specification. The rest of the experiments are equally telling in terms of the apparent use of product features outside the specification, etc.
This is not to say that Microsoft won't keep the steam roller crashing right along. From Mary Jo Foley this week we see that Microsoft is still "buying research" from IDC in a study declaring great uptake for OOXML. [I'm not linking to it because frankly it deserves to be buried. I won't even give it the small link credit this blog engenders.] While the IDC folks try to avoid complicity in the biased survey by openly declaring under the title that it was "Sponsored by Microsoft", we know the Microsoft marketing machine will happily be using the numbers and graphs in slides, attributing it all to an IDC study and failing to mention they paid for the "opinions". Too bad for the credibility of the IDC researchers when this one comes home to roost.
The incredible adoption for "OOXML" is likely a measure of market share on Office 2007 since it would be the only product claiming to implement the standard. The way the "study" keeps conflating PDF with ODF/OOXML is broken as well. So WHEN customers discover the truth of the implementation difficulties and continued lock-in of their document world, they'll respond the way customers always do when a vendor pulls a fast one on them.
Perhaps the most disheartening failure however is the way Microsoft has abused the machine that is the world's standards development organizations. Andy Updegrove has a brilliant if painful read on the damage that Microsoft has caused in its "race to win." Standards are needed and important. In the days of film cameras, you wouldn't have been able to grab a roll of 35mm ASA 400 film from any store anywhere on the planet (produced by multiple different companies with their own value added services and technologies) and have it just work in your camera without such standards from such organizations.
Microsoft is pushing organizational rules to the breaking point, ballot stuffing and buying its way to a win at ISO. They have complained from the beginning of the process that they're doing nothing different than the likes of their competitors who are "aligned against them." But this shows as much ignorance and naivete as the quality and implementability of their specification. Companies like IBM and Sun have invested deep and long and globally in their standards participation activities. They don't need to stuff the ballot box in a sudden end game -- they're invested in the long term infrastructure itself. They absolutely play to win and sometimes surprise one in their creative use of the rules and organizational structures. But they win because of a long term commitment to the machine itself, not to winning a particular battle at all costs.
Standards at Microsoft has been run by lawyers instead of technology standards practitioners for too long. It's been demonstrated time and again from the very beginning of the ODF working group formation in a succession of tactical and strategic failures by Microsoft. To those lawyers that have never actually participated in standards working groups, or the standards management process, or implemented to the specification, or designed a certification process to demonstrate conformance, this is just one more battle to win and hang the consequences. (Indeed, if we can "win" we can use it as precedent to "win" again!)
The sad part is that even if the ISO vote actually goes in Microsoft's favour, it still won't matter. It buys them a few years of market ignorance at best. This entire two year event is one for the standards text books on how not to respond to a business threatening standard. In the end, Microsoft will need to implement ODF natively. They don't know it yet, nor do they understand why, but it is just a matter of time.