Open XML and ODF - What Do You Want To Encourage

I have been traveling through Europe this week talking to people about interop generally, and with many people about Open XML. I am really encouraged by what I'm hearing from people as they think about the role of formats in the broader discussions of innovation and openness. I have been asked repeatedly to bring the debate on open formats to core issues.

As anyone who is close to the Open XML / ODF industry fracas is aware - these two are proxies for much larger issues. Product competition is clearly the most obvious large issue as the debate regarding the formats so clearly highlights the compeittion between MS, SUN, and IBM. Ok - fine, I think we all get that. But how about innovation? How about the benefit of ALL XML-based formats on openness?  Where does this leave us?

The first top-level issue is competition. Many people have commented repeatedly on the fact that Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, IBM Workplace, Adobe Acrobat, and other office productivity applications are in competition. The history of the creation of their document formats, and the representation of the various products' features in those formats is the most obvious motivator for the contentious nature of the ISO balloting period under way right now for Ecma Open XML. 

 The second top-level issue is innovation. The encouragement of greater innovation is the goal of all governments and private organizations. I have not met anyone who is satisfied with the idea that software development has reached its zenith. Are the developers of OpenOffice going to stop at its current version, seek to add no new functionality to the product, seek to limit its growth based on the representations available in the current ISO-ODF? I think not. In fact, OpenOffice continues to be improved as a product and I'm pretty sure they are not going to be satisfied with just copying what other office suites have done in the past. in fact, it would seem essential that they must differentiate or fail. Also, just look to the fact that the OASIS working group has already put out multiple revisions to ODF as that piece of the puzzle continues to improve as well. The fact is, office applications, and their formats, are part of a dynamic innovation environment rather than a static one. This one argument alone is the single most important reason to me that the argument for a single document format is flawed. I want to see Adobe push PDF further. I want to see the Ecma TC-45 folks push Open XML further. I want to see OASIS ODF working group to push ODF further. I want to see China push UOF further. In short - I don't want to see an innovation dead zone for application or format development because of the desire to drive to a least common denominator for formats.

The third top-level issue is around the encouragement of openness. I heard a few people this week be very eloquant around the idea that it is better for society as a whole to continue the progression towards open formats. The points made were not the deep details discussion as to the process of one standards body vs. another - it was about the top-level point that all of the activity from the major players around document creation are leading to greater openess for document formats. This is an increadibly positive trend and should be encouraged overall. This point has been echoed to me by universities, national libraries, national archivists, global multi-national corporations, small services providers, and many more. National bodies are being bombarded with endorsements, comments, criticisms all realating to Open XML and the upcoming close of the JTC-1 balloting process. I think that in all of the politics - a very real issue stands to be lost. We should all be in favor of increased openness for file formats. There is a good reason that Microsoft did not vote against ODF at any point, and in fact voted in favor of its adoption by ANSI recently - we agree that this trend is a good thing. We started working on XML-based file formats for MS Office back in the late '90s and continue with this work today.

I recognize that the details of a discussion are often the critical factors in understanding its implications, but in this case the macro issues are so very important and are being washed out in the endless back-and-forth on specific points. I'm often find myself in the details conversation, just look at the leading technical community blogs you'll see that there is no shortage of commentary out there. But, this week a number of people asked me to bubble the issue up to the real issues that matter. I think it doesn't get more basic, or more important that this - competition, innovation, and openness.

Open XML, ODF, PDF, UOF...all good things. Advocating against any of them becoming an ISO standard is inconsistant with the idea of promoting competition, innovation, and openness.