Microsoft 'Open' Format Slammed On Three Continents

Dennis Faas's picture

Officials in India, Brazil and South Africa have all filed official protests against an international decision backing Microsoft's controversial 'open' document format. Office Open XML (OOXML) is Microsoft's own invented format where documents (such as those created in word processors or spreadsheets) are designed to work on all computers regardless of what software is being used.

The problem is that there's already an open format named OpenDocument which was created by an independent organisation. Critics say it's redundant to have a second open format -- by definition there only needs to be one -- and that there's an inherent conflict of interest in any format designed by Microsoft, which has such a vested interest in protecting its own office software.

OpenDocument had already earned official backing from the International Organization for Standardization (known as ISO, which is taken from the Greek word for equal, rather than being an abbreviation). That's the worldwide body in charge of making it easier for businesses in different countries to work together. ISO standards include everything from the size of an A4 sheet of paper to a minimum safety level for ice hockey masks.

The controversy came on March 29 this year when ISO also adopted OOXML as an official standard. This gives it much more credibility, particularly in developing countries. It could make it easier for government agencies and other public bodies (such as schools) to use Microsoft's products as they will be able to argue they are officially recognized as being compatible with other software.

While many critics object to the entire principle of ISO backing OOXML, the three official protests are specifically about the technicalities of how ISO made their decision. The main complaint is that they used a fast-track process which only gave members five days to go through more than a thousand points of discussion. (Source:

That's partly because the technical specifications for OOXML run to more than 6,500 pages, compared with just 867 for OpenDocument

Ironically, the argument may soon prove irrelevant. Just last week Microsoft announced it was going to add full support for OpenDocument to the next major revision of its Office software. (Source:

From a political and technical standpoint, the current appeals have some merit. It certainly seems bizarre to officially back two different 'universal' systems, and making a Microsoft-designed system an ISO standard does seem a little like appointing a fox as warden in a chicken yard. But in practice most people who worry about using Microsoft Office documents with other software will already have figured out a way to do it, which can be as simple as using a text-only format.

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