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Toy Soldiers

It is interesting to watch the activities of JTC1/SC34 as they go through the motions of processing activities related to OOXML, long after any serious justification for their continuation has ceased. That is the nature of bureaucracy — wind up their clockwork and watch the little soldiers go through their prescribed motions. Come back in an hour and they may be stuck in a corner or knocked over onto the floor. But they’ll keep on shuffling their feet, back and forth, in small steps toward ends unknown and unknowable, the little senseless mechanical men.

One example is the proposals in SC34 to create a new project to create a Technical Report on translating between ODF 1.0 and OOXML 1.0. This might have made sense at some point in the past. But this proposal seems out of place now.


  1. Few applications today support exclusively ODF 1.0 and only ODF 1.0. Most of the major vendors also support ODF 1.1, one (OpenOffice 3.x), now supports draft ODF 1.2 as well.
  2. No one supports OOXML 1.0 today, not even Microsoft.
  3. No one supports interoperability via translation, not Sun in their Plugin, not Novell in their OOXML support, and not Microsoft in their announced ODF support in Office 2007 SP2.

So the proposal essentially will be to create an technical report for a translation task that no vendor is implementing, between versions of the ODF and OOXML standards that no vendor is supporting.

Excuse me if my enthusiasm is muted.

And yes, the proposers want accelerated processing for this proposal. But the idea was already obsolete the day it was proposed to SC34. Events have overtaken it, though the clockwork motions continue, and SC34 is currently having a ballot for this proposal, ending on 29 July. I’m not in favor of it. Perhaps it would be worth considering if resubmitted in one year’s time, and was targeted to consider ODF 1.2 and OOXML 1.1 (or whatever their next version is). But is it really a priority for SC34 now?

Another example of working on autopilot is the ad-hoc working group in SC34 looking at OOXML maintenance. Although it was heralded with much pomp “SC takes control of OOXML”, the fact is SC34 currently can’t even look at OOXML, let alone maintain it. They are entirely impotent. But still they will go through the motions and meet next week in London to advise Alex Brown, who will then take all this advice and later formulate and write up his OOXML maintenance plan for SC34 to vote on.

All the best to them. They voted on OOXML without seeing it. Now they’ll determine how to maintain it without seeing it. Maybe ISO should stand for Invisible Standards Organization? Maybe one of the participants can let me know where can I submit my invisible defect report?

In any case, since Microsoft has effective voting control of SC34, after almost two years of packing the committee, my bet is that OOXML will effectively be handed over to Ecma for maintenance. That is what JTC1 has done for every other Ecma Fast Track that has been approved. They might call it a “maintenance group” and allow token participation from SC34 liaisons in a non-voting capacity, but in all important ways it will remain Microsoft/Ecma standard. In the end, this makes some sense. Who is better positioned to clarify exactly how Excel financial functions work, the Microsoft engineer who has access to the Excel source code, or an SC34 representative from Kazakhstan?

Given the leisure to do the job right, my bet is on Microsoft. Everyone knows it for what it is now. There is no longer need for elaborate attempts to disguise the fact that OOXML is and will remain a Microsoft-only standard. Why continue the charade? If Microsoft put OOXML on MSDN, at least we would all have access to it and would know where to send our defect reports to, which is more than we can say about ISO OOXML. A real open standard is preferred, of course. But given a choice of fake ISO standard and a real MSDN specification, I’ll take the real MSDN specification any day.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • orlando 2008/07/17, 2:13 pm

    “Maybe ISO should stand for Invisible Standards Organization?”

    marvelous !

    thank you for this insightful article



  • Bart Hanssens 2008/07/18, 7:44 am

    Mm, actually the Microsoft / CleverAge converter on sourceforge does translate between ODF 1.0 and Microsoft OpenXML, and if I recall correctly, converting a legacy .doc to .odt in MSO2003 using this plugin does involve saving it to .docx first and translating this intermediate file to .odt.

    Granted, it still needs work and I don’t know if they have a roadmap on supporting ISO’s OOXML.

    Given that ODF 1.1 isn’t an ISO standard but 1.0 is, I can see their logic behind it… Then again, I agree with you that it will be much more useful to translate between the final versions of OOXML and ODF 1.2.

    And you’re right about the ODF versions, I’ve already seen ODF (pre-) 1.2 documents in the wild, even outside the IT-basements…

    Best regards,

    Bart H

  • Rob 2008/07/18, 10:26 am

    Hi Bart, yes CleverAge is using translation as a way of getting ODF support into their plugin. But that technique has proven itself to be a performance nightmare, and even those vendors who were supportive of that effort, like Novell and Microsoft, have already announced that they will abandon that translation approach in favor of adding direct, native support, without using translation.

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