Depending on who you ask, document standard harmonization is either impossible or inevitable, anathema or nirvana. Let’s dig a little into this question and see if the two sides are really that far apart.
First note that many JTC1 NB’s raised the issue of harmonization in their DIS 29500 ballot comments last September. Some merely requested harmonization, such as Korea, South Africa, Belgium, Peru, Switzerland, or the Czech Republic, while others in addition outlined ways to achieve harmonization. For example, AFNOR, the French NB stated:
After 5 months of extensive discussions between stakeholders in the field of revisable document formats, AFNOR, in the aim to obtain a single standard for XML office document formats within 3 years, makes the following proposal:
- Split the current ECMA 376 standard in 2 parts in order to differentiate the essential OOXML core functions necessary for easy implementation from those functionalities that are needed for the exchange of legacy office file formats;
- Incorporate the technical comments below and those in the attached comment table submitted to the Fast Track;
- Attribute the status of Technical Specification to both parts;
- Establish a process of convergence between ODF (already standardized as ISO/IEC 26300) and the above mentioned OOXML core. ISO/IEC shall invite parties involved to commit themselves to initiate simultaneously the revisions of the existing ODF v1.0 and the OOXML core in order to obtain at the end of the revision process a standard as universal as possible.
(Note that a Technical Specification, in ISO process, is for proposals which lack insufficient support for approval as an International Standard, but for which publication is still desired. This may be appropriate for OOXML.)
New Zealand’s proposal was similar:
- OOXML should be considered by JTC 1 for publication as a Type 2 Technical Report.
- Seek to harmonize with the existing ODF standard to reduce the cost of interoperability, cost of having two standards, and cost of support/maintenance .
Further, the NB’s of Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States requested that specific features be added to OOXML in order to improve interoperability with ISO ODF, in total 40 features such as the ability:
- to have more than 63 columns in a table
- to have background images in tables
- to have font weights beyond “normal” and “bold”.
Notably, these were the same features that Microsoft sponsored translator project on SourceForge identified as needed to improve translation with ODF. These are the features that the project noted were lacking in OOXML.
Ecma rejected every single one of these requests. They did not argue that the requested features were unreasonable. They did not argue that the requested feature was not needed. Their argument was that harmonization of the formats was not necessary because there exist tools that will translate between OOXML and ODF. In other words, they rejected these requests merely because they were pro-harmonization, regardless of the underlying merit or need of the feature. Ironically, Microsoft’s conversion tools are restricted in their fidelity because of the lack of these very features.
On the question of harmonization, we are either moving toward it, or we are moving away. There is no time better than the present to harmonize. Waiting will only make matters worse, as we will then need to consider legacy OOXML documents as well as legacy binary and legacy ODF documents. The Ecma response does not move us toward harmonization, but starts down the road toward further divergence, a long and costly divergence.
Tim Bray made the critical observation back in 2005, “The world does not need two ways to say ‘This paragraph is in 12-point Arial with 1.2em leading and ragged-right justification’.”
Microsoft likes to claim that harmonization is impossible, that slapping together the features of both standards would lead to a messy, impenetrable mess. Of course, but only an idiot would suggest that as an approach to harmonization. So why do they always bring that up as their strawman?
A look at OpenOffice and Microsoft Office shows a huge degree of functional overlap. Harmonization starts from looking at this functional overlap – and there is a significant, perhaps 90%+ area where they do overlap – and expresses the functional overlap identically, using the same xml schema. In other words, harmonization identifies the commonalities at the functional level and finds a common representation for that commonality.
It would also be expected that the common functionality between ODF and OOXML would also include a common extensibility mechanism, a way for a vendor to express application-specific features that are outside of the harmonized standard.
The remaining 10% of the functionality would be the focus of the harmonization work, the area that requires the most attention. Some portion of that 10% will represent general-purpose features that we can imagine multiple application supporting. We take those features and add them to ODF. That remaining portion of the 10%, which only serves one vendor’s needs, such as flags for deprecated legacy formatting options, could be represented using the common extensibility mechanism.
Does this sound impossible? That’s not what Microsoft says. Gray Knowlton, Group Product Manager for Microsoft Office, was candid to PC World a couple of weeks ago:
Also, if individual governments mandate the use of ODF instead of Open XML, Microsoft would adapt, Knowlton said. The company would then implement the missing functionality that ODF doesn’t support. However, those extensions would be custom-designed and outside of the standard, which is counter to the idea of an open document standard, Knowlton said.
So we’ve agreed that this approach is technically feasible. We’re also agreed that extending ODF outside of the standards process is not a good idea. So the obvious solution is to extend ODF within the standards process. So, let’s do it! What are we waiting for?
There is no reason why, by a harmonization process, all of the functionality of Microsoft Office cannot be represented on a base of ISO 26300 OpenDocument Format. I personally, as Co-Chair of the OASIS ODF TC, stand ready and willing to sponsor such a harmonization effort in OASIS. So let’s start harmonization now, and avoid further divergence.
My read of NB comments indicates that there is a sizable bloc, perhaps even a decisive bloc, of NB’s who are in favor of harmonization. Lets push on this and articulate a roadmap along the lines of the proposals by France and New Zealand, that accomplishes this.