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September 01, 2005

Massachusetts and Open Formats

News today about Massachusetts planning to dump Office because of it file format not being open. However the articles (Forbes, Inquirer, Financial Times) are pretty vague on why Microsoft's new XML Office formats won't qualify (they are specifically excluded, it says). I'm especially interested in this because it's what the late lamented Open Data Format Initiative was about.

So I went looking for more info on the Massachusetts government site. Here's an Informal comments on Open Formats from January 15, 2005. "It was exactly a year ago - January 13, 2004 - that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts launched a new Open Standards policy regarding the planning, development, and implementation of IT systems."...blah blah blah..."We will extend the definition of Open Standards to include what we will be calling Open Formats", sounds good..."Open Formats are specifications for data file formats based on an underlying open standard, developed by an open community, and affirmed by a standards body; or de facto format standards controlled by other entities that are fully documented and available for public use under perpetual, royalty-free, and nondiscriminatory terms", right, so what's the problem with Office XML? "We have been in a conversation with Microsoft for several months with regard to the patent that they have on, and the license surrounding their use of, XML to define the schema of DOC files in Microsoft Office 2003", OK that's the old stuff..." it is our expectation that the next iteration of the Open Format standard will include some Microsoft proprietary formats." Right, so then what happened?

Then there's this long thing, dated today, which is mostly about using XML for interop, but then at the bottom starts talking about Open Formats, and lists them: OpenDocument ("As of January 1, 2007 all agencies within the Executive Department will be required to: 1. Use office applications that provide native conformance with the OpenDocument standard, and 2. Configure the applications to save office documents in OpenDocument format by default."), plain text, HTML, and PDF. So I guess that's what's new. It doesn't specifically exclude Office so much as not include it. You could argue it doesn't include it because it hasn't shipped yet, but it also states that by 2007 everybody must use OpenDocument, which is veering beyond just using open formats and into using a specific open format.

Posted by AdamBa at September 1, 2005 10:22 PM

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come on. open formats are good! yes its a specific open format, but isn't that what MS is trying to promote with their initiative?

Someone will write OpenDocument support for Office soon, if it hasn't been done already, then they can have their cake and eat yours, and still follow the law.

Posted by: jeremiah at September 2, 2005 09:04 AM

You brought this on yourselves, and don't expect anyone to feel sorry for you.

Remember what a certain Jim Allchin said about IE once upon a time? Let me remind you:
"We have to make this our only priority and put our top people on the job. In addition to our planned Win32/OLE work, we have to get serious about extending and owning HTML as a format, and in the process leverage our existing assets to get ahead."

We know what you're like with standards, and you have you have a long history of playing dirty. Sympathy just isn't gonna happen.

How hard would it have been to make Office XML an open format? Whether your main competitors (which is OO.org here) can or cannot use it, unrestricted, seems to be a reasonable test of whether a standard is open or not.

Guess what? YOU FAIL IT!!!!1!eleven! Feel the burn biatch!

Posted by: Sigmund at September 2, 2005 03:01 PM

Since when is PDF an open format? Last time I checked you needed to have a license from Adobe to write an app that wrote out the format (I guess you could reverse enginer it). You also cannot really open and extend the format. Conversely there are add-ins (commerical or shareware) that will let you write out PDF from MS Word so that should not preclude it from the state of Mass.

Posted by: abomb88 at September 2, 2005 04:14 PM

The issue is this: people basically understand preserving data. They make backups, they transfer the backups from tape to CD, they worry about whether the CDs will be readable in 20 years. What they DON'T understand, and may not be able to solve anyway, is keeping a machine around that can run 20-year-old software.

So imagine it's 20 years from now and you find a file. Can you decode it? Well, if it was written in an open format, you can at least write some software to decode it.

In the ODFI mailing list we kicked around PDF for a while and eventually decided it was open for our purposes, because you could READ it with no royalties. It doesn't matter if you can write it or extend it.

Meanwhile, the fact that Microsoft Word can export PDF is useless, because you have to have a copy of Microsoft Word around to do that.

I agree Microsoft brought this on themselves. What I really don't understand is why they don't simply publish the CURRENT Office formats, and announce that henceforth they can be read license free. That would make Massachusetts happy and I don't see the downside.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at September 2, 2005 08:50 PM

This is a discussion of the open-ness of some formats:


- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at September 2, 2005 08:51 PM

Stop FUDing, little Microserf.

License-free to read isn't good enough.

License-free to write is needed as well (which is why PDF is a bit of surprise, but for some reason there are lots of (illegal?) free as in freedom PDF writers, including in OO.org).

Useless being free to read if you can't write the docs in the first place. And if you need to say pretty please to MSFT's shareholders every time you want to use a new app to write, or modify OO.org, or MS decides to file a new frivolous patent for a new way to have Clippy's instructions hardcoded into the document, well then, it's not very open, is it?

As for extensions, there should be a 'viral' element to extensions: ie, if anyone extends and wants their extensions officially adopted then they have to play by the same rules - ie, no patent suits, license-free to read, license-free to write, etc. This means that the formats are guaranteed open for perpetuity - something else MS won't commit to.

Posted by: Sigmund at September 3, 2005 06:05 AM

I totally agree that it would be superb if MS open it current and past office formats.
But I am sure this is one of the things that will never happen (or at least not until it is too late).

Creating an program that is 100% compatable with MSOffice file formats would, for sure, kill it. MS knows that because this is how it got there. (e.g. WordPerfect was "reverse-engineered" http://blogs.msdn.com/chris_pratley/archive/2004/04/27/120944.aspx)

An compatable and cheaper product (OpenOffice.org is free) would literally kill Word. Have you ever though that quite powerfull computer hardware cost less than OEM version of both WinXP Home + MS Office Basic Edition.

Why MS propose its "Open" Format? This format is open only in the meaning of "I can see what is there", but it isn't free to use. At least in USA, where you can patent method for storing office data in structure that is created by somebody else as a way to store data (XML).

If I remember right, this MS XML format was created with the only one purpose - to limit the damage OpenOffice 2.0 ISO Standard document format is going to cause.

MS XML format is patented and if it is adopted nobody would be free to use it without negotiating an arbitrary agreement and/or amount of money with MS.

I don't agree that reading is enough. After all this is MY data. I must be able to do whatever I want with it, no matter in what format it is.

The real problem is that MS cannot let the bird fly, as it may never come back. Yes, they took it out of the cage, but they had cut its wings.

Posted by: Ivan at September 3, 2005 11:58 AM

PDF *is* open, people. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portable_Document_Format (read the first paragraph - license free!)

of course Adobe would rather you buy their solution, but they don't make you. The specification is available for anyone to write PDF readers and writers free of charge and without licencing fees. there's not even a EULA you have to agree to to download the specification! You don't see that a lot anymore.

so PDF is yet another fine example of an OPEN format.

Posted by: jeremiah at September 4, 2005 08:21 AM