Microsoft Wipes Out Open Document Formats

Matthew Magain
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With its announcement on Thursday that it was committed to interoperability, Microsoft successfully sent OpenOffice.org’s OpenDocument formats to an early grave, presenting its own file formats as the industry standard that everyone should support.

OK, so Microsoft’s .doc, .xls and .ppt file formats for word processor documents, spreadsheets and presentations are pretty much the de facto standard these days already. But with Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie’s statement that Microsoft would be opening up the technical specifications defining these file formats, Microsoft has taken a big step in consolidating them as the industry standard for exchanging data.

Much of the news commentary last week was focused on the statement that Microsoft explicitly would not sue open source developers for connecting to Microsoft software. But the bigger story here, in my mind, is the fact that by explicitly making these APIs freely available, Microsoft are essentially turning their own file formats into standards, removing any real reason to keep open document formats such as the OASIS consortium’s Open Document Format (the default file format used by the OpenOffice.org suite) alive at all.

A bunch of questions come to mind, including this: just how far is Microsoft prepared to go in making its specifications available to developers? (only about 30 of the promised 30,000 documents have been made available so far). Will it just be the bare minimum for us to get things done, or is this interoperability commitment the real deal? And after opening up the protocol, is open-sourcing the code behind any of Microsoft’s applications the next logical step?

What do you think? Is Microsoft’s interoperability commitment a fluffy PR-move without substance, or is it a realization that openness is critical in order to survive? And does ODF stand any chance, at all?

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  • Tim

    The announcement link is broken.

    I’m not sure why this announcement though would signify the death of ODF. It still remains that both sides need to spruik the benefits of both formats, and that will most likely be fought out in the corporate world. I guess the biggest thing is this gives MS and avenue into those goverment departments that have been saying they need open documents for interoperability. Previously they were excluded from those tenders purely because of document formats.

    MS are starting to make inroads into releasing previously held “secrets” because the benefits in doing so these days is almost nil in some cases. Sometimes the best way to take over the world isn’t to establish yourself as the ONLY player, it’s to ensure that everyone else is dependant on you instead. Removing the document format issue means people could in theory pick between office suites, but still keeps them in a dominant position as far as software functionality goes.

  • Tim

    The parts that I do think are great news (if it pans out) is the API/protocol documentation being released. But I’m sceptical how quickly they will release them. Main reason I say that is for security reasons. Let’s say they release the BITTS protocol (Windows update), or their chat protocol. If they haven’t first taken steps to secure the end points, hackers everywhere now have all the docs at their disposal for spreading viruses across the world at break-neck speed. Regardless of how good the announcement is for interoperability, that’s bad news for everyone.

    In my view, it will open like can of Coke open. They’ll give you all the info necessary to open the can, but wont tell you what the recipe is for the actual Coke inside it.

  • Andre

    I don’t think I share your view that this MS move is an ODF killer. Remember that MS only promised not to sue open source parties producing software that interoperate with these MS protocols/file formats if they distribute the stuff in a non-commercial manner. That is strictly not compatible with GPL, which does not distinguish between non-commercial and commercial distribution.

    I believe that MS’ announcement really means nothing to open source. ODF is still the truly open format. I am hoping that MS can change its stance; maybe then we’ll really see their formats as an “ODF killer.”

  • http://www.magain.com/ mattymcg

    Andre, how can you kill something that is already half-dead? If Word supported ODF by default, I’d agree with you. But it doesn’t. And until it does, 99% of regular users will never have heard of it. This is just the nail in the coffin.

  • Nathan-Kelly

    Microsoft seem to be doing a lot of this sort of thing lately, I think they must be feeling the open source pinch more than they are making out. Either way, if I don’t have to buy MS office to view documents I wont, so hopefully ODF doesn’t die too easily.

  • http://blog.conficio.com/ conficio

    Mathew, you seem to have drunk too much of that MS CoolAid. As you elude in the bottom part of your article, it is PR only so far.

    Also, judging from past behavior of Microsoft, giving APIs to developers does not mean openness, as they usually reserve their private APIs that are more efficient, use preloaded libraries, etc.

    As well, Microsoft giving people APIs, does not mean they really specify what how to render their document formats, more specifically than like Office 95 did it [wrong].

    Last but not least, The ODF has a huge advantage, which is that it is based on other standards, and so can build on many sub implementations and knowledge, such as handling ISO compliant dates, or vector graphics. Why in the world would an open source programmer try to learn and implement all the MS shortcuts with their year 2000 type problems? I don’t think so. At best it will be some corporations with a customer base to migrate, that will pay for implementing ODF plug ins for MS Office. And their aim is still to migrate the customers.

    And a format that has published APIs does still not mean openness and freedom, as Microsoft is the only one controlling any enhancements.

  • Stevie D

    Yet another example of “embrace, extend, exterminate”.

    Instead of the far superior ODF used by OpenOffice, Microsoft are hell-bent on ensuring that their bloated and unmanageable systems obliterate any opposition and reinforce their position as the indomitable market leader.

    I’m not at all surprised. Ever since they first announced that they wanted to be part of the open document party, I’d not had a second’s doubt that they meant they wanted to take over the open document party.

    That settles it for me. I’ve been toying with the idea of switching from Windows to Linux – now it’s a definite. There will be no .doc or .xls on my computer!

  • elemental70

    Yup I agree. I’ve switched to ubuntu and have been happy as a clam for the past 9 months. MS windows and their formats are bloated, don’t work correctly and are overpriced. The amount of people that asked me for alternatives to MS when I was at BestBuy was staggering. Just because it is the “market leader” doesn’t mean it is best. Far from it.

  • Adrian G

    Matthew, you’ve nailed it: I can hardly wait to use Microsoft [open] formats on my Linux machine.
    You should stick to playing the bass guitar.

  • Sojan80

    I’m not sure I’d see this as a good thing at all. MS already has too much market share in too many other areas, and this is just one more monopoly for them…

  • Tim

    I think you are all missing the most important part of this announcement. It’s not the document format that is the killer, it’s the API/protocol documentation that is the wow in this. Imagine finally having a broad toolset that can connect with ActiveSync/Exchange rather than having to hack your way through it and guess how it works? Sure some companies have figured out how it works, but that’s mostly because they have partnerships with MS. The potential in all of this is finally have true hyrbrid networks between *nix and MS servers because they would be able to talk to each other correctly in a more stable fashion. Anyone with a mite of experience in managing a hybrid network would see the potential in this. Problem is that by the time the docs are released, the developer community still needs more time on top of that to either fix their code on existing tools, or develop new tools. But I guess we have to start somewhere. This announcement opens a lot more possibilities than simply one document format for all office suites. Think network level mashups for one.

  • byron.adams

    When did sitepoint start spinning fud?

  • the.peregrine

    The death knell for Open Documents is a bit premature, don’tcha think? As if anyone would even want Microsoft’s smelly ol’bloated formats.

    “A bunch of questions come to mind, including this: just how far is Microsoft prepared to go in making its specifications available to developers? (only about 30 of the promised 30,000 documents have been made available so far). Will it just be the bare minimum for us to get things done, or is this interoperability commitment the real deal? And after opening up the protocol, is open-sourcing the code behind any of Microsoft’s applications the next logical step?”

    These question are already answered and essentially written in stone for open source solutions.

  • Jeremy

    This “article” is a new low for SitePoint. If I wanted to read Microsoft editorial FUD about something completely unrelated to web development (this is still SitePoint, not OfficeSoftwarePoint, right?), I’d read the MSDN. But I don’t, so if you want to keep me and developers like me reading this site, stop producing garbage like this.

  • http://weblog.200ok.com.au/ 200ok

    Personally I think there are still good reasons to use ODF over DOC, particularly for archival purposes. Ever tried to open a really old DOC file? Nasty. Whereas with ODF, if all else fails you can extract the XML and get your content back.

    To answer your final question: I think this is a case of MS trying to kill open standards in favour of presenting their own solution as a “standard”. To put it another way, they’re appropriating the word “standard” to help enforce their monopoly. There’s no benefit to the world, just a benefit to MS.

    ODF is open. DOC is closed, with a little peek to justify some PR and anti-ODF FUD.

  • John Cooper

    You’ve missed the most important point. ODF is a world ISO standard and many governments are moving to ODF because of this. The writing is on the wall for MS formats and they are desperately trying to keep them alive. Interoperability will win over closed lock-in formats. As already stated, it is also important that you can read old documents and being told the format is no longer supported by MS will not be accepted in the future.

  • Jez

    Matthew seems to be based in Melbourne. This would explain alot, since here in Australia perceptions and uptake of open source are rather backward when compared to trends the world over. Checked how many downloads of OpenOffice.org there have been on their site lately ? And this does not count the millions of GNU/Linux users who already have it in their favorite distributions by default. And oh yes, yawn, its an ISO standard. Over zealous FUD claiming the death of ODF is not going to kill this kind of momentum.

  • http://www.sitepoint.com AlexW

    This would explain alot, since here in Australia perceptions and uptake of open source are rather backward when compared to trends the world over.

    I believe you, but got any data supporting out that hypothesis, Jez?

    I have heard that 47% of all statistics are made up on the spot, but I’m not sure whether to believe that figure — seems a bit high to me.

  • http://www.russharvey.bc.ca/ rhcman

    With the shenanigans Microsoft has been pulling off (stacking meetings, etc.) this is not going to be a community-based decision.

    The agreement to not sue someone doesn’t ensure the openness required for any future for the standard. Microsoft’s simply responding to governments that require standards-compliance. Rather than move Microsoft’s own formats into compliance, they are simply moving the goalposts.

    One need look no further than Microsoft’s historical (and current) lack of support for Web standards to understand their motives.