OOXML - is Microsoft's "open" format good business?

Microsoft is on the brink of having the file OOXML format used by its Office suite an international standard. But is it sensible for standards to be rooted in one vendor's vision?

8Microsoft's Office Open XML document format looks set to become an international standard, but does that make it the right choice for your business?

While Microsoft's document formats for Word and Excel have been de facto standards for years, international concern is growing over such reliance on one vendor. Many organisations are concerned about data sovereignty, considering it a business risk to lock their intellectual property away in proprietary formats.

Such concerns have been one factor behind the rise of OpenOffice, a free open source alternative to Microsoft Office comprising of a word processor, spreadsheet and database as well as presentation, vector drawing and mathematical function tools. OpenOffice has the look and feel of Microsoft Office 2003 and is compatible with its file formats, so staff require little training to make the switch. It is available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Solaris. Sun Microsystems sells StarOffice, a corporate version of OpenOffice based on the same code base and also offers paid support or OpenOffice.

While OpenOffice is compatible with Microsoft document formats, by default it uses Open Document Format - an open XML-based document format which was adopted as an ISO standard in 2006. The global backlash against Microsoft proprietary formats has seen OpenOffice build a user base as diverse as the French parliament, the Israeli Ministry of Commerce and Singapore’s military. Massachusetts was the first US state to mandate the use of ODF as the standard format for all state agency documents.

The corporate world has been slower in coming to terms with the concept of open source, says OpenOffice's Australian marketing person Jonathon Coombes. Mr Coombes is former secretary of the Australian UNIX and Open Systems User Group and he also runs Newcastle-based Cybersite Consulting specialising in open source.

''I think OpenOffice is certainly ready for business,'' Mr Coombes says. ''One of the classic arguments against moving to OpenOffice has been the need to retrain staff, but that becomes null and void if you're considering upgrading to Office 2007. Microsoft have made some fairly substantial changes to the Office 2007 interface, so everyone will need to learn a new interface regardless.''

Considering business versions of Office 2007 retailed from $690 to $1150 when the first hit the shelves, small to medium enterprises in particular are entitled to ask if it's time to break the Microsoft upgrade cycle - especially if they know they'll only use a fraction of the advanced functionality.

To combat the attraction of OpenOffice and the Open Document Format, Microsoft has put forward its own Office Open XML format and fast-tracked the process of making it an ISO standard to reassure businesses they are safe using Microsoft's formats. The open source community has also developed a Microsoft Office plugin, with Microsoft's blessing, that allows Office 2007 to work with ODF files.

At least seven countries submitted formal objections to Microsoft's OOXML becoming an international standard but, after a long and drawn out process, Microsoft appears to have the numbers to get OOXML accepted as an ISO standard.

"This outcome is a clear win for the customers, technology providers and governments that want to choose the format that best meets their needs and have a voice in the evolution of this widely adopted standard," says Tom Robertson - general manager of Interoperability and Standards at Microsoft Corp.

"Once it is formally approved, we are committed to supporting this specification in our products, and we will continue to work with standards bodies, governments and the industry to promote greater interoperability and innovation."

Despite Microsoft's open format ambitions, the National Archives of Australia has embraced OpenOffice's open standards for archiving the nation's governmental records. While Microsoft describes Office Open XML as open, it's not licensed in a fashion that proponents of open source licensing would recognise as being open, warns the National Archives of Australia's preservation software manager Michael Carden.

''Microsoft's not saying Office Open XML is open and anyone can do what they like, what they're saying is anyone can do what they like and Microsoft promises it won't sue you - which is a little odd. Microsoft have also tried to maintain some backwards compatibility with some of their old formats. To do that they've left the standard open to drop in binary blobs from old applications in ways they don't clarify - which is a little odd because that stuff is obviously not open source,'' Carden says.

''If you're doing something to the data when archiving, then whatever you're doing needs to be visible. From that perspective, particularly for archiving, I'd say open source is fundamental.''

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