Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Media replies on the OOXML issue

These are some questions that a media person sent me on the OOXML issue.


> Q1. Do you look at this development as a decisive turn of events against
> Microsoft in the fight between the open source and proprietary software
> camps?

The fact that OOXML was defeated in India indicates that Indian policymakers are well aware of the importance of open standards and one must give them due credit for this. The open source and free software communities believe that public data should be in public formats. The government is the custodian of citizens data and has an obligation to ensure that this data is not tied to one particular application. Take the case of land records, which need to be preserved for 400 years or more. If land records are stored in a proprietary format, there is no guarantee that it can be retrieved a few hundred years later because the only one who can unlock the file is the organization that created the format.

The only way to assure that data can be stored and retrieved freely is to use published standards that have been built through collaboration and consensus and have multiple third party implementations. The Internet is one of the finest examples of true open standards because anybody can create web browsers and e-mail clients by following the standards published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Open standards are important to humanity because it enables us to share knowledge freely. Both, open source and open standards are inclusive movements and therefore the rejection of OOXML is a great victory for those who campaign for the users freedom to encode and decode their data.

> Q2. How important would be the outcome of the final judgement on
> government spending on business software?

Open standards are not just important, they are fundamental to efficient e-governance. Using proprietary standards is akin to handing the keys to the treasury to a third party and is a very unwise step when it comes to citizens data.

> Q3 What are the loose ends Microsoft will have to fix in order to win the
> trust of voting members?

The Bureau of Indian Standards has submitted a list of issues with OOXML that has been submitted to ISO.

> Q4 Can you share on some of the concerns raised by the voting members
> regarding OOXML? How relevant are these according to you?

1) Taking the legacy Office file format and XMLising it does not make it an open standard. Third parties should be able to freely implement an open standard without recourse to the author of the document. At 6000 pages OOXML is too long and too opaque to be implemented by third parties. Most of those who claim to have implemented OOXML are parties which have private treaties with Microsoft.

2) There is an existing open standard for documents called Open Document Format (ODF). Creating multiple standards for the same purpose only leads to confusion. For example, in 1995, both Netscape and Microsoft came up with their own extensions to HTML. This lead to a profusion of websites proclaiming "Optimised for Netscape" or "Optimised for Internet Explorer."

The purpose of standards is to unify and not to divide and the best standards like ASCII, Unicode, HTML etc are ones that are created through consensus and collaboration. We have all gained enormously from unified standards for data exchange and the web. Let us ask the industry to collaborate and come up with a consensus unified standard for document exchange. Vendors should collaborate on standards and compete on their implementation. This is the best outcome for industry and consumers.

3) After more than 26 years of pushing proprietary formats, Microsoft is now arguing that it is OK to have multiple standards. Multiple standards for the same task lead to increasing the cost of compliance, testing and implementation for everyone. For developers, it increases the time taken to release an application, which drives up cost. For users it increases the possibility of errors and miscommunication.

For example, the recent delay in the launch of the Airbus A 380 (which will cost the organization €2 billion, or $2.5 billion over four years) has been attributed to the fact that the Airbus fuselage sent from Hamburg, Germany was received at Toulose, France, the workers found that the 300+ kms of wiring could not be connected properly. (See Boeing itself has attributed it to "incompatibilities in the development of the concurrent engineering tools to be used for the design of the electrical harnesses installation." Anecdotal evidence indicates that both these organizations were using different measurement systems derived from the country of their origin. In a globalizing world having common standards helps everyone. International travelers who carry multiple power adapters for their notebooks know this logic well.

In e-governance, let us take a simple case. The revenue department uses data from the land records data base. Unfortunately, this is in a different format and therefore the the revenue department has problem decoding land records data. In such a case, who is responsible for the correct decoding of the land records? As mentioned earlier, the purpose of standards is to eliminate such friction and therefore, BIS should recommend that vendors should work together on unified standards.

The two attached docs will give more info on the subject. My blog at also has ore info. Specially these articles:

4) There are also serious objections to Microsoft's efforts at "Ballot Box Engineering" which are documented at my blog on

Venkatesh Hariharan
Open Source Foundation of India