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Asking the right questions about Office 2010’s OOXML support

There is more OOXML controversy in the news, this time in Denmark. I don’t claim to understand all the nuances of the accusations, since I don’t read Danish, and Google Translates makes it sound at times like a discussion about loaves of rye bread or something, but the gist of it, as I can surmise from this account, is whether Office 2010 will “support the complete ISO-approved version of OOXML”.  Microsoft’s spokesperson says it will.  Mogens Kühn Pedersen, chair of the Danish Standards Committee, says it will not.

This is the kind of dispute where you can go around in circles with for days and not reach agreement. The problem is they are arguing over words, not facts, and they do not agree perfectly on the meaning of the words. Words like “support” and “complete” and “conform” are used in different ways, with different meanings and intents.

Let’s try to escape the equivocation and instead try to establish the underling facts. I can’t promise that this will clarify the situation any. In fact I suspect we’ll end up even more confused about what exactly Office 2010 actually supports. But replacing a false certainty with an honest uncertainty is progress of a kind. It gives us something we can build on.

First, we need to acknowledge that OOXML entered ISO as one standard, and was transformed, via the BRM and ISO ballot, formally into 4 standards, ISO/IEC 29500 Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4. Within these parts are are several different conformance targets and conformance classes. In particular, these 4 standards encompass two different and incompatible schemas for many of its features: “Strict” and “Transitional”. What Microsoft submitted in the Fast Track is essentially the “Transitional” schema. What was created by the BRM was the “Strict” schema. This is where Microsoft made most of its “concessions” in order to turn “No” votes into “Yes” votes. So things like support for spreadsheet dates before the year 1900, the elimination of VML graphics, etc., these are all in the “Strict” schema. All the legacy “DoItLikeWord95″ garbage was in “Transitional” only. Several NBs voted to approve OOXML because the assertion that “Transitional” would not be written in documents produced by future versions of MS Office. The promise was that it was…well…transitional, for moving legacy binary documents into XML. Few people want to support two different document standards (both ODF and OOXML) in the first place. But to require support for two different and incompatible versions of OOXML — that is simply intolerable.

In any case, because of these two conformance classes, anyone who claims that their product supports “OOXML” in an unqualified sense, without stating which conformance target or conformance classes they are supporting, is not stating anything of substance. It is like trying to buy an electrical plug adapter by just saying “I need electricity”. Merely saying “conformance to OOXML” means nothing. You need to state the conformance targets and classes that you support. Remember, the conformance language of OOXML is so loose that even a shell statement of “cat foo.docx > /dev/null” would qualify as a conformant application. I assume that Office 2010 supports at least that.

Of course, the alleged assertion that Office 2010 supports OOXML “completely” is a bit more problematic. What exactly does this mean? Does this mean that Office 2010 supports all conformance classes and targets of all four parts of OOXML? Including being a Strict consumer? A Strict producer? That would be a good thing, IMHO, if it were true. But that is not what ISO/IEC JTC1 SC34/WG4 was recently told in Seattle, where they were told that Office would not write out Strict documents until Office 16. That would put it out to the middle of the next decade, assuming the typical 3-year Office release schedule.

So I’ll lay out my assertions (with the caveat that Office 2010 is not complete and shipped yet) as:

  • Office 2010 will conform to the Transitional consumer and producer classes defined in the OOXML standards. Any bugs that are found in the shipped version of Office 2010 will be “fixed” by retroactively changing the standards to match what Office actually does, as is currently being done by Microsoft-packed SC34/WG4 committee with similar bugs found in Office 2007’s OOXML support.
  • Office 2010 will not have conforming support for OOXML Strict producer or consumer classes.
  • Office 2010 will write dozens of non-interoperable, proprietary extensions into their OOXML documents, extensions which are not defined by the OOXML standards and which have not been reviewed or standardized by any standards committee and which will not be fully interoperable with other OOXML editors, or even with previous versions of MS Office.

So instead of arguing over the meaning of “support” and “complete” I suggest some alternate questions for Microsoft, to give them the opportunity to clarify exactly what kind of support for OOXML will be coming in Office 2010:

  1. Exactly what ISO/IEC 29500:2008 conformance classes and targets will Office 2010 conform to?
  2. Is this contingent on first changing the conformance requirements of the published ISO/IEC 29500:2008 standards to match what Office 2010 actually supports? Or is there a commitment to support the published standards as they was approved by JTC1 national bodies? In other words, is Microsoft committed to conform to the standards, or are we back to changing the standards to “conform” to Microsoft?
  3. Will Microsoft Office 2010 write out only markup that is fully described in the OOXML standards? Or will it write out proprietary markup extensions that are not fully defined in the standards? In other words, will Office 2010 be “strictly conformant” with the ISO/IEC 29500:2008 standards?

The problem you run into here is that there are really two different OOXML standards: the new and improved OOXML Strict conformance class, the one that was “sold” to ISO NBs, the one that garnered the approval votes, and then the old ugly one, the “haunted” specification, the Transitional conformance class, supported only by Microsoft Office. Anyone considering adopting OOXML should have perfect clarity as to which one they are adopting, especially since these are two very different standards, both formally and logically. Just as it is problematic to speak about OOXML support in a product without stating which conformance classes and targets are supported, it is equally a defect of any adoption policy to be loose in what version of OOXML is being proposed for adoption.

IMHO, if you must state a requirement for OOXML (along with ODF), at least specify it clearly, and state a requirement for “strict conformance” (meaning no extensions) of the Strict conformance classes of ISO/IEC 29500:2008. To do otherwise is to essentially specify a requirement for the use of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Office alone.

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{ 18 comments… add one }

  • Luc Bollen 2009/11/17, 18:25

    Rob, you may be interested to have a look at the comments to the following post: http://idippedut.dk/post/2009/11/03/Excel-2010-%28Microsoft-Office-2010-CTP-TO-do-list-%2801%29.aspx by Jesper Lund Stocholm.

    Basically, Alex Brown tells the same story as yours (ISO-29500 Transitional will be aligned with the output of Office 2007/20010; ISO-29500 Strict will likely never see the light of the day) with his own words and twist, of course. The main difference is that he seems happy with this situation…

    "But to require support for two different and incompatible versions of OOXML — that is simply intolerable." Microsoft knows this. This is why I predict that they will never produce Strict OOXML. At least not until a big enough part of the market is locked in OOXML Transtional. Then will be the right time to sell (at the high price) upgrades to OOXML Strict…

  • Rob 2009/11/17, 19:05

    @Luc,

    I agree that Microsoft will likely never implement the Strict OOXML schema. However that is not the same as saying that it is not useful for Microsoft. I think of it like what chemists call a sacrificial anode. OOXML/Strict is Microsoft's sacrificial anode. Whenever someone points out a flaw in OOXML, or asks for anew feature, or complains that OOXMl is tied to Windows and to Office, or whatever, Microsoft is able to appear responsive fix it in the Strict schema. But then they implement the Transitional schema only. Without the Strict schema, Microsoft would have no sacrificial anode to divert criticism with.

  • cecil 2009/11/17, 21:04
  • Jesper Lund Stocholm 2009/11/18, 03:01

    Hi Luc,

    There is absolutely nothing to substantiate your claims that OOXML will be aligned with Office 2010.

    I suppose at some point Microsoft will approach us with a list of suggested additions to OOXML. That is the prerogative of any vendor or any national body. I presume that is also how it works in ODF TC.

    We will then look at the suggestions and choose which ones might make sense as additions to OOXML. I imagine that some will – and some won't. Those that won't will remain as Microsoft extensions.

  • Rob 2009/11/18, 07:23

    @Jesper, It is a prerogative of a vendor to make proposals to ISO? That is news to me, Jesper. The last I checked only NBs and liaison bodies could participate in ISO, not individual companies. Of course some, like Microsoft, are pushing for a rule change to allow "direct participation" by corporations in ISO, but the last time I checked this has not yet been approved. Or has Microsoft told you otherwise?

    Ironically, Microsoft has approached the ODF TC with some new features they are adding to Office 2010. It is odd that they have not done the same thing with OOXML and SC34.

    @Cecil,

    I don't know if it is just a coincidence, but ever since news stories broke about an imminent settlement with the EC over their antitrust investigation, Microsoft appears to have imposed "radio silence" on Doug and a few other bloggers, especially on matters of controversy. I wouldn't take this as meaning they agree with everything I say, but just that they perceive more risk in responding than benefit. In any case, with Jesper and Alex, who needs Doug?

  • Luc Bollen 2009/11/18, 07:35

    @Jesper: You misunderstood what I meant. I was not talking about specifically aligning with Office 2010. I was referring to the alignment with Office 2007, which results at the same time to alignment with Office 2010 as they are using the same schema.

    "I suppose at some point Microsoft will approach us with a list of suggested additions to OOXML. That is the prerogative of any vendor or any national body. I presume that is also how it works in ODF TC." What would be interesting is that *other* vendors or NBs not dominated by Microsoft suggest additions to OOXML. That's how it works in ODF TC: it is not a single dominating vendor that proposes additions.

    (Note that as Microsoft is not a member of SC34, I'm not sure ISO rules allow them to provide direct input, but I guess ECMA will be pleased to play the in-between.)

  • Jesper Lund Stocholm 2009/11/18, 08:13

    Hi Rob,

    @Jesper, It is a prerogative of a vendor to make proposals to ISO? That is news to me, Jesper. The last I checked only NBs and liaison bodies could participate in ISO, not individual companies.
    When I wrote this, I actually thought about writing "ECMA" instead of "Microsoft", but I thought it'd be spun regardless. Thanks for confirming that thought.

    Also, "ISO" in Denmark is "Danish Standards" (and yes, I know you might be able to argue your way out of this as well) and everyone is more than welcome to approach the Danish committee with suggestions to OOXML or ODF. We'd be delighted to look at anything that comes our way. Indeed, IBM in Denmark has suggested we should propose adding some of the deferred things from DIS-process (like ODF-specific anchoring and positioning within frames) to OOXML. So IBM US might not be participating, but IBM Denmark certainly is.

    In any case, with Jesper and Alex, who needs Doug?
    I just love being stigmatized by you, dear … but please remember, that I am an "IBM drone" as much as a "Microsoft drone".

    :o)

  • Rob 2009/11/18, 08:30

    @Jesper, your exact quote was: "I suppose at some point Microsoft will approach us with a list of suggested additions to OOXML. That is the prerogative of any vendor or any national body." I pointed out that companies do not directly contribute in ISO. You then say that you meant to say Ecma or Danish Standards. But surely NBs do not participate in Danish Standards or in Ecma. I don't see any way of parsing your statement that can be viewed as being even remotely accurate.

    In any case, aside from being inaccurate, your comment is off topic. No more, please.

  • Jesper Lund Stocholm 2009/11/18, 08:49

    Hi Luc,

    (sorry about missing your comment before I added my previous input)

    What would be interesting is that *other* vendors or NBs not dominated by Microsoft suggest additions to OOXML. That's how it works in ODF TC: it is not a single dominating vendor that proposes additions.

    Yes, it will indeed be interesting to see what happens. Since no "liaison" has yet approached us with suggestions for addition, it is already a bit speculative to discuss this.

    The Japanese NB is, as far as I know, the committee that is closest to come with concrete proposals for better support for Japanese scripts.

    Also, the Danish NB currently has 5 active members (that show up for the meetings). These are CIBER, IBM, Microsoft, Sun and DKUUG. So even though you might count CIBER and Microsoft "as one", it would still be hard to look at the Danish NB as "Microsoft dominated" with a "2:3" ratio against. I do not know of the current status of the IBM DK suggestions, but I have in previous meetings endorsed the idea of adding the ODF constructs to OOXML. I am looking forward to hearing uptodate status from IBM DK on this on our next meeting on November 27th.

    However, I can tell you my opinion on the matter of adding Office 2010 extensions to OOXML:

    Some of the extensions Microsoft has made to OOXML are actually good ideas. Of these are additional slice transitions, that I would see no problem in adding. Then there are other extensions that do not, at first glance, make a lot of sense. These include the attribute on the Cell-element called "xdy" (or something like that). I haven't studied them in depth, but they do not seem to be as "obviously good ideas" to add as e.g. the new slide transitions.

  • Luc Bollen 2009/11/18, 09:25

    @Jesper: "IBM in Denmark has suggested we should propose adding some of the deferred things from DIS-process (like ODF-specific anchoring and positioning within frames) to OOXML."

    1. "adding … to OOXML" means little as it is not specific. Would you propose to add this to ISO29500 Transitional or ISO29500 Strict ?

    2. Adding something in the standard is only worth if it is implemented by somebody (look at the additions made by the BRM 18 months ago and still not implemented in any commercial office suite). So, once it is added and published (within at least one year) will Microsoft implement it ? If it is added in Strict, surely not before many, many, many years. Even if it is added in Transitional, it is too late for implementation in Office 2010. By the time it is published by ISO, it will likely be too late also for the "Feature freeze" of the next version of MS Office.

    So, *maybe* the added items will appear in a version of MS Office within 5 or 6 years, if we are lucky. And if a feature is not understood by MS Office, nobody else will implement it. Do you really think it is worth for any company (outside MS) or any NB to contribute something new to OOXML ?

  • Rob 2009/11/18, 09:31

    @Luc, Remember, NBs already made around 20 specific proposals to add features to OOXML to improve interoperability with ODF. These were all rejected by Ecma.

    WG4 should really go back to Ecma's proposed Disposition of Comments report and re-examine all the items that NBs proposed and Ecma rejected. There is no need for WG4 to sit around scratching their bellies, moaning about how no one but Microsoft has any proposals. The proposals have already been made.

  • Jesper Lund Stocholm 2009/11/18, 09:51

    Hi Luc,

    1. "adding … to OOXML" means little as it is not specific. Would you propose to add this to ISO29500 Transitional or ISO29500 Strict ?
    I think it should be added to S and we should stop fiddling anymore with T.

    So, *maybe* the added items will appear in a version of MS Office within 5 or 6 years, if we are lucky. And if a feature is not understood by MS Office, nobody else will implement it. Do you really think it is worth for any company (outside MS) or any NB to contribute something new to OOXML ?
    Well, you tell me? We cannot force anyone to participate in WG4. All we can do it create a platform for them to use. I do think we need more participation from the other vendors seeking interop with Microsoft Office (like IBM, Sun/ORACLE etc), but it's parhaps difficult to do so due to political reasons for the competitors to Microsoft Office. I'd personally welcome direct participation by IBM in WG4 with open arms, but until they do, I am completely happy that they choose to participate indirectly via Danish Standards.

    Good for them :o) (and us)

    Rob,

    @Luc, Remember, NBs already made around 20 specific proposals to add features to OOXML to improve interoperability with ODF. These were all rejected by Ecma.

    Yes, and I was among those that argued against them in the DIS-process. But I think the timing is now perfect for addition of them, so I encourage those that wished to have them added in the first place to re-enter the request.

  • Luc Bollen 2009/11/18, 12:10

    @Jesper: "it should be added to S and we should stop fiddling anymore with T"

    I agree, but then we must have a formal commitment by Microsoft that they will implement ISO29500 Strict within the coming 12 to 24 months latest.

    If nobody ever implements Strict, why would any vendor or any open source project invest time and money in making changes to it ? Sure, I understand that Microsoft is happy to distract competitors with the Strict variant, but unless Microsoft commits to switch to ISO29500 Strict rapidly, I would recommend everybody to not invest one cent of their money or one second of their time improving it: it is lost time and money.

  • Jesper Lund Stocholm 2009/11/19, 02:29

    Hi Luc,

    I agree, but then we must have a formal commitment by Microsoft that they will implement ISO29500 Strict within the coming 12 to 24 months latest.
    Yes, and I'd personally encourage them to make such a statement. But it is really out of scope of WG4 to do anything about it.

    I would recommend everybody to not invest one cent of their money or one second of their time improving it: it is lost time and money.
    Well, there are several tools one can use to push Microsoft to implement S – "not participating" is perhaps the least effective of those.

  • Anonymous 2009/11/20, 09:20

    This looks to complex for me. Should we not start to talk about ooxml1, ooxml2… or something short. It would be easier to show that this are different things. And these would perhaps fit in a fileextention.

  • Anonymous 2009/11/23, 10:54

    What we need is an ACID test for Office formats (both ODF and OOXML), similar to the browsers' ACID test.

    http://acid3.acidtests.org/

  • Anonymous 2009/11/26, 04:45

    @ Anonymous nov. 23:

    "What we need is an ACID test for Office formats"

    Maybe feeding benchmark test documents to http://www.officeshots.org could fulfil this function.

  • Răzvan Sandu 2009/11/30, 07:05

    Hi Rob,

    If you have any information, please update our knowledge about the implementation of ODF in MS Office 2010 and future Service Packs of MS Office 2007 – if you have any inside information…

    It would be much more interesting to know if Microsoft will provide a working implementation of ODF, without the famous „Excel bug”. ;-)

    Many thanks
    Răzvan

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