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Amusing but Confusing

I’ve always been annoyed by Microsoft’s choice for a name in their “Office Open XML”. It isn’t the wishful use of the work “open” that bothered me. It was that the name just doesn’t roll off the tounge easily. It always seems to get stuck someplace and comes out wrong. You need to think harder to say “Office Open XML” and have it come out right.

“Open” is an adjective, and in English adjectives are usually placed before nouns, not in the middle of a noun phrase. We say, a “black guard dog”, not a “guard black dog”. When you fight language, language usually ends up winning. So it is not surprising that what comes out is “Open Office XML” by mistake.

I’m obviously not the only one with this problem. A quick Google for “Microsoft Open Office XML”, or “Ecma Open Office XML”, phrases that should get zero hits, reveals instead an embarrassment of riches. Everyone gets this wrong.

ZDNet’s David Berlind:

Yesterday, when Novell announced that one of the first fruits to be born out of its newly minted legal relationship with Microsoft would be a plug-in to OpenOffice.org that would allow the open source based office suite to open or save documents in Microsoft’s Open Office XML (OO-XML) file format, I had a tough time parsing through the text of the company’s press release.

Redmonks’s Stephen O’Grady with an article titled “Microsoft Open Office XML Formats / Open Document Format Follow Up”.

CRN: Reseller Channel News with a headline, “Ecma says Yeah to Microsoft Open Office XML“.

Computer Business Review:

Corel Corp, developer of the WordPerfect suite, announced last week that it will support both ODF and Microsoft’s Open Office XML format.

XMLMind, a tool designed to work with OOXML gets it wrong:

Thanks to new XMLmind FO Converter v4, it is now possible to convert XML documents to Open Office XML (.docx) the native format of MS-Word 2007.

BusinessWeek proof-readers missed this error:

…Microsoft is working hard to defeat it and promote its own XML-based file format–called Microsoft Open Office XML. This will be the default file format in Office 2007, due out late this year.

Even Microsoft Press Releases make this error:

‘Through the XXX Alliance, we are working closely with Microsoft to increase data access across our instrument systems and data analysis software tools using Ecma Open Office XML,’ said XXX, president of XXX.

Even Microsoft’s blog profile for a member of their own Corporate Standards Team, an OOXML expert, gets it wrong:

Dave is a member of Microsoft’s Corporate Standards policy team. He is involved with all of Microsoft’s global standards around server & tools which includes everything from XML to WS-*, from W3C to Oasis and ISO, all Office standards including Open Office XML, and all vertical industry standards from the enterprise markets to Microsoft Dynamics products

This guy works on Office Open XML and he doesn’t even get it right!?

Microsoft’s own OOXML overview page on the file formats can’t get it right:

By installing a simple update, users of Microsoft Office 2000, Microsoft Office XP, and Office 2003 Editions can open, edit, and save documents in one of the Ecma Open Office XML File Formats.

Ditto for Microsoft’s FAQ page on the file formats:

The Ecma Open Office XML Formats will offer some key improvements over the binary file formats in use today within Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Because these new file formats are compressed, the resulting document sizes will be much smaller, somewhere between 50 and 75 percent smaller in some cases.

A recent article by Microsoft’s Platform Strategy Manager in Australia got it wrong in the title: Streamlining your documents with Open Office XML.

And to top it all off, Bill Gates himself gets it wrong, then corrects himself, as seen in Molly Holzschlag’s transcript from a recent blogger outreach event she attended at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond:

But every year for 13, 14 years now we’ve not just followed and implemented standards, we’ve contributed. This WS stuff, . . . we contributed more Web standards than anyone! We have our smartest people who go and work on that stuff . . . we just did the OpenOffice . . . our office XML formats we contributed to them . . . we’ve got XML at the core of all our products.

(Thanks to Yoon Kit from Open Malaysia, who has also been taking a closer look at the names used inside OOXML, for pointing out that quote.)

I’m not meaning to embarrass anyone with the above quotes. Those who have heard me speak on Office Open XML know that I struggle to get that name out every time, and do not always succeed. Like I said before, if you fight language, you will lose.

So the Ecma standard clearly has a name which causes confusion with the name of an existing application, “Open Office”, which happens to also be the most prominent implementation of OpenDocument Format, the ISO standard for office documents. OpenOffice.org is a registered trademark (check the Tess database for the actual registration) and has been used in the trade since 2001 for describing a application used for database management, spreadsheet, word processor and presentation graphics.

I am not a lawyer, but from reading a BitLaw writeup on trademark infringement, it appears that the thing to prove is “likelihood of confusion”, and the factors the courts would look at include evidence of actual confusion by consumers and similarity of the marketing channels for the two products.

In any case, to have an ISO standard that, by its aberrant use of the English language, almost compels users to transform it into “Open Office XML” will only confuse users. This is not just my prediction. It is my observation, backed up by many specific examples of how this confusion is happening even now. I invite you to comment on other examples you may know of.

Early last year, another Microsoft/Ecma was submitted to JTC1 for approval under Fast Track rules. It was Microsoft’s C++/CLI specification. During the 30-day contradiction review period national bodies raised objections based on the confusing name Microsoft picked for their standard, and the practical problems this caused. GrokLaw had good coverage of this.

A summary of the UK’s contradiction argument is:

In response to document ISO/IEC JTC1 N8037, the UK objects to Fast Track Ballot ECMA-372 1st Edition C++/CLI Language Specification, on the grounds that there is a contradiction with an existing JTC1 standard. ISO/IEC 14882:2003 is the standard for the C++ programming language. Adopting a second standard under the proposed name of C++/CLI will cause unnecessary and harmful confusion in the marketplace.

We consider that C++/CLI is a new language with idioms and usage distinct from C++. Confusion between C++ and C++/CLI is already occurring and is damaging to both vendors and consumers.

A new language needs a new name. We therefore request that Ecma withdraw this document from fast-track voting and if they must re-submit it, do so under a name which will not conflict with Standard C++.

Germany had similar objections:

We propose that the document is input into SC22 as a regular New Work Item Proposal and assigned to WG21 for further processing.

On a technical level, there are some rather different approaches between C++ and C++/CLI which can easily cause considerable confusion when both languages are considered to be “C++” or add unnecessary overhead when trying to write C++ code usable with C++ and C++/CLI.

I suggest a similar objection should be raised with regards to Ecma Office Open XML. It’s name causes confusion with an existing registered trademark. Ecma should rename their standard to something less likely to cause confusion.

Any suggestions for a new name?

Updated on 25 June 2007 to add some additional recent examples of this continuing confusion.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Doug Mahugh 2007/01/20, 4:11 pm

    FYI, you missed a site that I believe has used the term “Microsoft Office Open XML” more than any other in the last two weeks since the ISO contradiction period began: Bob Sutor’s blog.

    Here are some typical examples, most of which use that misleading phrase in the headline itself:








    This makes it sort of hard to identify meaningful trends in the data you’re presenting. How many people have read the blog of IBM’s VP of Open Source and Standards during that time, believing they were reading the truth, and then unknowingly repeated the misnomer he has been feeding them?

  • Rob 2007/01/20, 4:43 pm

    Doug, Now you’ve got me totally confused. Help me out here. Bob’s blog entries all use the term “Office Open XML”. That is what the standard is called, right?

    My point was how often it is misstated as “Open Office XML”, by users, by the press and by even Microsoft. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bob or I got it wrong once in a while. My argument is that this is a confusing name. But the examples you give seem to get the correct word ordering.

    What am I missing here?

  • stephen o'grady 2007/01/20, 7:43 pm

    ugh – stupid mistake on my part. thanks for the catch, Rob. i try to be careful, but suppose i just missed that one.

  • Yoon Kit 2007/01/21, 11:23 am


    You wouldnt believe it, but Bill Gates also has this problem!

    Please read this entry from molly.com:


    Bill Gates said:
    “We have our smartest people who go and work on that stuff . . . we just did the OpenOffice . . . our office XML formats we contributed to them . . . we’ve got XML at the core of all our products.”

    Is it a bad name, or is it really really clever?


  • Luc 2007/01/21, 5:29 pm


    I think that there is an obvious name to be used : Microsoft XML, or MSXML in short.

    This name avoid any confusion, and clearly depicts the true content of the standard.

    Kind regards,
    Luc Bollen

  • Philip Storry 2007/01/21, 6:20 pm


    “MSXML” would cause confusion. A quick search with Google shows that many developers use that name as the core libraries that Microsoft provide for manipulating and traversing XML streams. In fact, the “MSXML” returns a healthy 1,999,000 hits, suggesting it’s widely used by the technical community.

    However, MSOXML returns just 88 hits, most of which seem to be people using it as a name for Microsoft Office XML anyway.

    (A couple of the hits seem to be reproductions of code that I think Microsoft has put into web pages for round-trip editing of published HTML files from Office, but since it’s just 88 hits and not a declared public standard, I’d be willing to say this isn’t relevant.)

    Therefore, MSOXML would be my first suggestion. One extra character makes all the difference… It stands, of course, for Microsoft Office XML. Why complicate things?

    Indeed, as a bonus, it’s got a succinctness that eluded the specification itself… *grins*

    (My second is TRIX-MS – it stands for “Tardy, Rushed, Incomplete XML Marketing Standard”. But I suspect that this will not be approved by the vendor who owns – sorry, donated – the standard.)

  • Yoon Kit 2007/01/21, 8:54 pm

    Im puzzled why Microsoft were not consistent with their naming conventions. After all, it was WordprocessingML, SpreadsheetML, PresentationML…

    … so shouldnt it be MicrosoftOfficeML? (MSOML)?
    Google doesnt bring up anything substantial for us to be confused with.


  • Doug Mahugh 2007/01/22, 11:22 am

    Hi Rob,

    My point was that Bob consistently puts “Microsoft” in front of the name. The standard is named “Ecma Office Open XML” and not “Microsoft Office Open XML.” It’s sort of like if somebody at MS were to consistently refer to “IBM ODF” as the name of the ODF standard.

    Bob usually puts “Microsoft Office Open XML” in the subject, which seems likely to contribute to confusion about the actual name. (For example, that’s the case in 6 of the 7 examples I gave, and the other one has “MS Office Open XML” in a sub-head.) I understand Bob’s point, that in his opinion Ecma Office Open XML is strongly associated with Microsoft, but I think it would cause less confusion if he made that point explicitly rather than renaming the standard.

    – Doug

  • Anonymous 2007/01/22, 11:26 am

    I would suggest using ODF and OOXML as both
    Open Document
    Office Open XML seem confusing

  • Rob 2007/01/22, 11:56 am

    Doug, I don’t see how the “Ecma” versus “Microsoft” prefix would cause people to mistate “Open Office XML” for “Office Open XML”. These seem to be independent errors.

    In any case you may want to update the Wikipedia page for OOXML for that. It currently calls it “Microsoft Office Open XML”.

  • Anonymous 2007/01/24, 6:51 pm

    I’m afraid you’re blowing the name problem out of proportion. Consider this: WordStar, WordPerfect, KWord, Word, Word Pro are all word processers, yet nobody confuses them. Nobody confuses Word Pro with Word, even though Word comes in a Professional edition!

  • Rob 2007/01/24, 10:09 pm

    As you say, people don’t confuse WordPro or WordPerfect with Word. But they do confuse Office Open with Open Office as I demonstrated with numerous examples.

    Is this just a minor matter? I guess it depends on who you are. If I were the owner of the Open Office trademark I would not think it minor.

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