The New York Times on OOXML

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I’ve been surprised at the low quality of the New York Times’ coverage of Microsoft’s attempt to make its OOXML document format an international standard. They just don’t seem to know what they are talking about. This article, reporting on the ISO’s rejection of OOXML, contains the following explanation of what it means for a format to be “open”:

in an open format, the computer code is public, which allows developers to create new products that use it without paying royalties.

This is just flat wrong. An open format is a format, not a computer program. It does not consist of code. Rather, it specifies how information about a document’s format is represented, that is, how one indicates that the next word is in italics or that a new paragraph is to start. The Times article gives the misleading impression that companies are being asked to disclose the source code for their word processors. They aren’t. Rather, an open document standard, like the existing ISO standard Open Document Format, ensures that one word processor can read files saved by another word processor.

The Times article is also misleading in that it refers to OOXML as “open”. The openness of OOXML is one of the main points of dispute. Microsoft is putting OOXML forth as an open format, but critics have rightly observed that it contains quite a few undefined features, that is, secret features that can be implemented only by Microsoft. OOXML is not open, which by itself is reason to reject it.

Yet another error in the Times article is the attribution of the Open Document Format to “a consortium led by IBM”. Actually, ODF is based on a format developed by Sun and was created by OASIS. The OASIS committee included members not only from Sun and IBM but from Adobe, Ars Aperta, Beijing Sursen International Information Technology, Design Science, Novell, Intel, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and Duke University. Microsoft could have participated if they had wished to.

These issues have been extensively discussed in the technical community, and there are excellent summaries available. A major source of information is Rob Weir’s blog An Antic Disposition. Another is Andy Updegrove’s Standard’s Blog. There’s really no excuse for the Times to get this wrong.

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