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Microsoft wins the war of office document formats.

Earlier today, the commonwealth of Massachusetts issued a revised draft of the technical reference model, allowing offices to use both the OpenDocument format and Microsoft's Office Open XML.

Outside the state offices, of course, the decision to include OOXML is purely symbolic. But like anything symbolic, it resonates because it is representative. What played out in Massachusetts is likely to be played out elsewhere in much the same fashion.

So, we might as well be the first to point it out. In battle between open standard office documents, the war is over: Microsoft won; ODF lost. In a few short years, ODF will be little more than a footnote, much as Netscape is today.

Why? Just dumb inertia.

As we discussed in an article we issued this week, the two formats are pretty much the same, at least when it comes to archiving and interoperability. Based on XML, they are both open standards, so they can both be parsed by third-party software and can be saved for the ages.

Of course, some people are still pretty adamant that OOXML still does not completely detail every aspect of an Office document-- that documents still contain binary-elements that require Microsoft Office to represent properly, making OOXML useless as an open standard.

When we spoke with Alan Yates general manager for Microsoft Office, however, he steadfastly denied this was the case. "The XML represents all the functionality of the products. It represents essentially all the raw data that describes the document as well as is contained in the document," he said. If we've learned anything here at GCN, it's how to tell when a vendor hedges on an answer. Yates seemed pretty forthright though: "The complete functionality of Office 2007 is represented," Yates insisted.

(This is not to say that everything within an Office 2007 document could be rendered properly in, say, Open Office. Fidelity depends entirely on how well any third-party program parses the XML document. But that is a responsibility of the third-party program, not Microsoft).

Standards attorney Andrew Updegrove is about as cogent observer as anyone on the ODF/OOXML debate, and he even he admitted that, technically speaking there isn't a lot of difference between the two formats. He did note, however, that supporting OOXML means supporting Microsoft, whereas supporting ODF means encouraging a wider ecosystem of vendors.

While that sounds good in theory, whether any agency should be concerned about such economic matters remains debatable'after all, an agency's only duty, really, is to follow through on its stated mission, be it safe air travel, environmental protection or defending the country. In any case, that goal remains outside the scope of the two reasons why Massachusetts demanded an open document format'interoperability and archiving.

So if the formats themselves are pretty much the same, then this means everyone will use OOXML, for the simple reason that almost everyone in government offices (and offices everywhere) uses Microsoft Office.

For the exact same reason Linux made no inroads replacing Microsoft Windows on the desktop, so to will Open Office (or any of the other little-used office productivity suites that harness ODF) make any inroads into government office.

And this is not a dig on Open Office. I use version 2.2 when I telework, and I have found it to be every bit as is good as Microsoft Office. But it's extremely doubtful that organizations will change office suites just to save a little money. And any advantage that Open Office enjoyed by using an open standard has now vanished.

Of course, it's a bit cold-hearted to predict OOXML's eventual victory, because, after all, if it weren't for ODF, then Microsoft probably would have not introduced OOXML in the first place. But, if we've learned anything else from vendors over the ages, it's that precedence is no guarantee to success.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Jul 02, 2007 at 9:39 AM


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