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Achieving Openness: A Closer Look at ODF and OOXML

by Sam Hiser
06/14/2007

Summary

An open, XML-based standard for displaying and storing data files (text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations) offers a new and promising approach to data storage and document exchange among office applications. A comparison of the two XML-based formats–OpenDocument Format ("ODF") and Office Open XML ("OOXML")–across widely accepted "openness" criteria has revealed substantial differences, including the following:

Overall, a comparison of both formats reveals significant differences in their levels of openness. While ODF is revealed as sufficiently open across all four key criteria, OOXML shows relative weakness in each criteria and offers fundamental flaws that undermine its candidacy as a global standard.

Introduction

In today's knowledge economy, information and communication technology (ICT) architectures need to be flexible. They must be modular, pluggable, and easy to set up, fast to integrate, and fast to take down and repurpose for governments and businesses alike to meet the demands of their citizens and customers. The architectures need to be built around agreed standard protocols and data needs to flow seamlessly across different applications and platforms.

Open standards are at the core of these new interoperable systems. Based largely on the framework of TCP/IP and HTML, both open standards, the Internet's open architecture has enabled new and unimagined ways of communicating, working, and innovating. The Internet is the best example of what can be achieved when systems interoperate around open standards.

With that in mind, this article analyzes the "openness" of two emerging XML-based document formats. The analysis is timely. ODF was approved as an international standard in May 2006 (ISO 26300).i OOXML was recently submitted to JTC1 of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Committee (IEC), triggering a 9 to 12-month process during which OOXML will be reviewed and voted on by national standards bodies.ii Much of the information in this paper has appeared before, but not in a synthesis on the openness theme.

"Openness" in Document Formats

With the emergence of flexible ICT architectures that depend upon interoperability, a document format's degree of openness will affect the free flow of information across the world's computer systems. ODF and OOXML each promise different results for data access as well as cost, choice, and innovation in software.

Given the document-intensive nature of their day-to-day business, governments have a special interest in open document formats. An open standard for documents that is widely available in many software products would allow agencies and departments to exchange and collaborate on office documents, store them for long periods of time, ensure public access to them, and enable electronic communication with citizens without forcing on themselves or their citizens any particular brand of software. This is why interest in open document standards is growing and why the number of governments around the world requiring their use is increasing.iii

Various definitions of an "open standard" have been proposed.iv With document formats particularly in mind, a consensus emerges among the definitions; they gravitate to agreement in four basic areas:

Following is an analysis of both formats across each of these four consensus criteria and a measurement of the degree to which ODF and OOXML satisfy each one. In satisfying these criteria thoroughly, a document format can be deemed sufficiently open to bring us fully into the Internet era of low-cost, collaborative computing based on modular services and architectures.

(I) Open Life-Cycle

A format development process having an open life-cycle means the format is evolved in a fashion that is open to public participation, where meetings are held in the open, where meeting artifacts (notes, minutes, e-mail correspondences, and documentation) are published, and where all participants–individuals as well as companies–have a voice in consensus decision-making on the standard's technical make-up. An open standard should be platform- and vendor-neutral, so multiple implementors working on multiple platforms is essential.

(A) ODF

ODF was developed and is continuously evolving in an open, appealable, and published process. ODF was developed at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) Technical Committee, which operates in view of the public while inviting the participation of any interested party. E-mail of technical committee communications, including meeting notes and documentation, is archived on the OASIS web site. Technical committee meeting participation is not limited: individual members of OASIS as well as corporate representatives participate equally, with voting eligibility established by the level of individual participation.

ODF's Technical Committee and Sub-Committees include multiple active participants representing both proprietary and open source implementers. Other participants include accessibility advocates, academic and government representatives, and consumer groups.

Originally the default format in the OpenOffice.org application, ODF went through a rigorous, open evolution process starting in 2003 when it was submitted to OASIS. OASIS members improved it over the course of two years before a year-long review process at ISO, where it received more comments and correction, before it was officially published as an ISO standard in November 2006. During these four years of collaborative technical refinement, many software application vendors implemented it to varying degrees of completeness in both proprietary and open source solutions.

(B) OOXML

Ecma International ("Ecma") Technical Committee 45 ("TC45"), which maintains OOXML, works in an opaque manner with its voting, balloting, and appeals policies not published. It is unclear if voting, balloting, or appeals processes are used in the development of OOXML, since the formats were pre-developed within Microsoft's Office software development group and Microsoft retains veto power over any ongoing changes that are proposed in TC45. Moreover, while there is an after-the-fact reporting by press release, the meeting activities of TC45, the committee's work-in-progress, documents, and e-mail are not public.v

Barriers to participation in the development of OOXML are many. Ecma membership requirements are limiting: individuals are not welcome to participate except by special invitation or through their corporate membership at Ecma. Only senior corporate members have the right to vote on a TC. The OOXML specification's over 6,000 pages were reviewed in less than a year by Ecma and were submitted to ISO in December 2006 without a reference implementation in software.

(C) Conclusion

OOXML is a single-vendor specification that does not have an open life-cycle. Ecma TC45 behaves only as a consultative body. A single vendor, Microsoft, retains control over development of OOXML. Performance on such key criteria as interoperability (see Section IV, below) therefore remains in the hands of one private entity. This contrasts significantly with ODF's open life-cycle as maintained at the OASIS ODF Technical Committee.

(II) Open Availability

An open format is published in its entirety in a specification document, which is freely available and easy to comprehend. Open Availability also means that a format is freely available for implementation in software.

(A) ODF

ODF is published in its complete form in the .odt and .pdf formats, which are downloadable from the OASIS website free of cost.vi

ODF has been implemented in many different vendors' products, under both proprietary and open source software licenses and on numerous operating system platforms. This is possible because the ODF specification is technically explicit and contains references to other open standards, and because its length is reasonable and manageable.

(B) OOXML

The OOXML specification is free and may be downloaded from the Ecma website. It is, however, difficult to manage, coming in such length and in parts so numerous, in a text so complex and inconsistent in its technical terminology and with so many deliberate omissions, that questions arise about its availability on a practical level.vii In the following areas, OOXML presents significant questions and challenges regarding full, open availability:

  1. Non-disclosure of elements of OOXML

    OOXML contains numerous undocumented elements. For example, OOXML preserves certain file data in binary form based upon legacy formats that are not, and have never been, disclosed to outside developers. This means it is impossible for any entity besides Microsoft to create effective alternative implementations of the formats.

    A second example is the implementation of OOXML for spreadsheets in Office 2007 (Excel 2007), which also makes use of data in binary form. As these binary formats have not yet been shared openly, it is presently impossible for other vendors or developers to create working alternative implementations of the OOXML binary spreadsheet format.

  2. OOXML elements require an application to emulate Microsoft Office

    Numerous elements designed into but undefined by the OOXML specification require actions and behaviors upon document files that are particular only to legacy Microsoft Office and WordPerfect applications.viii Examples from the OOXML specification include:

    Function Name

    Description

    lineWrapLikeWord6

    Emulate Word 6.0 Line Wrapping for East Asian Text

    mwSmallCaps

    Emulate Word 5.x for Macintosh Small Caps Formatting

    shapeLayoutLikeWW8

    Emulate Word 97 Text Wrapping Around Floating Objects

    truncateFontHeightsLikeWP6

    Emulate WordPerfect 6.x Font Height Calculation

    useWord2002TableStyleRules

    Emulate Word 2002 Table Style Rules

    useWord97LineBreakRules

    Emulate Word 97 East Asian Line Breaking

    wpJustification

    Emulate WordPerfect 6.x Paragraph Justification

    shapeLayoutLikeWW8

    Emulate Word 97 Text Wrapping Around Floating Objects

    The practical effect is that the data associated with these features, once it is contained in OOXML files, will not be readable, editable or renderable by software applications that cannot perfectly emulate Microsoft Office or WordPerfect. While the stated purpose of OOXML is to ensure backward compatibility with old files, such deprecated legacy data creates a dependency upon Microsoft's Windows operating system and office suite applications.ix

    Such dependencies fail to meet the criteria of Open Availability. The Microsoft OOXML format includes interactions with its earlier unspecified formats. The result is that other vendors, developers, or users cannot access data in Microsoft formats to the same degree as Microsoft software, nor to the degree expected of standard XML.

    These unspecified format characteristics and application behaviors are not explicit in the OOXML technical specification, nor are they legally allowed to be duplicated by developers. Microsoft's license for OOXML, the Open Specification Promise, prohibits such application behavior emulation and, therefore, blocks access by non-Microsoft entities to the data in OOXML form–in effect, this makes the specification unavailable while it also defeats the purpose of having an XML document format.x

(C) Conclusion

As evidenced by its implementation in multiple products that are offered through multiple vendors, ODF achieves open availability. However, the OOXML specification's complexity, its length, omissions, and single-vendor dependencies prohibit efficient, cost-effective, or fully working implementations of the format in other software. OOXML is therefore unlikely to ever be fully implemented by any application other than Microsoft's Office, for which it was created.

(III) Multiple Implementations

An open document format can and will be designed into many different software applications without practical, technical, legal, or other impediments.

From a different perspective it is fair to say that an open format has the characteristics that attract multiple implementations. If one had no other way to tell, the format specification with the greater number of complete implementations likely follows open principles more rigorously and will better deliver information free-flow between applications and platforms.

Additionally, software patent restrictions provide a drag on a format's re-implementation in software. They stifle software choice and increase the structural cost in the economy of working with documents.

(A) ODF

Although ODF originated as the native format of OpenOffice.org, it has been adapted to an open process and is designed for open re-implementation in any software:

  1. ODF's multi-vendor support

    ODF was conceived for implementation in many software applications without limitation as to which party or how many can implement it. One of the principal objectives as specified in the OASIS ODF Technical Committee charter is to have as many implementations as possible and, indeed, multiple implementations of ODF exist today. Currently OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, KOffice, Lotus Notes, AbiWord, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Zoho Writer, AjaxWriter and other applications work with ODF documents. As pointed out previously, multiple implementations of ODF existed prior to its submission to ISO.

  2. ODF's reuse of existing standards

    ODF makes use of as many existing open software standards as possible, which both improves the specification's quality, shortens re-implementation production schedules, and permits conformity with the wide range of W3C XML tool sets. This respect for existing standards makes re-implementation of the ODF format attractive, efficient, and feasible, and it provides for an efficient standard specification process and a more compact specification document.

  3. ODF's covenant not-to-sue provides necessary assurance

    ODF is developed and maintained by a technical committee whose members are obligated to a royalty-free policy. The originator of ODF, Sun Microsystems, provides a simple covenant-not-to-sue, which covers any of potential Sun patents used in the development of ODF implementations (although none have been asserted yet).xi The ODF specification is allowed to be fully implemented in both commercial and open source software without legal impediment. Additionally, ODF has been certified by the Software Freedom Law Center as free of legal encumbrances that would prevent its use in any free or open source software.xii

(B) OOXML

OOXML is a single-vendor format that presents obstacles to implementation in software other than products offered by Microsoft for which the format was designed:

  1. OOXML is not fully implemented in any application

    The Ecma TC 45 charter states the goal in its Programme of Work, "To Produce a formal Standard for office productivity documents which is fully compatible with the Office Open XML Formats." Microsoft Office 2007 is currently the only application that provides a partial implementation of OOXML, while no application exists that is a reference implementation for the formats Ecma TC45 has submitted to ISO.xiii

  2. OOXML fails to reuse existing standards

    OOXML ignores a number of open standards that are available and should be used, including SVG for drawings and MathML for equations.xiv Failure to reuse existing standards increases the cost and difficulty of third-party implementation and the frequency of the document formats' code-level interactions with proprietary features in Microsoft operating systems and applications.

  3. OOXML's IPR covenant offers limited protection

    The patent-protection pledge in Microsoft's Open Specification Promise only protects what is explicitly specified in the standard. The Promise states that the company will not sue anyone for implementing the explicit parts of the OOXML specification; however, there are numerous implied, referenced, and undocumented facets and behaviors of the OOXML formats which, if implemented by another entity, would risk "intellectual property" (patent) violations against Microsoft software. Additionally, there are serious gaps in the promise not to sue:

(C) Conclusion

ODF has already achieved multiple implementations and has therefore achieved success with this criteria. In contrast, the patent "promise" of OOXML is insufficient. The embedded uncertainty and gaps in coverage hold back the formats' practical and legal implementability. That's why OOXML does not have multiple implementations today, and it should not be expected to have them under Microsoft's present approach to protecting developers against patent violations.

(IV) Interoperability Across Different Systems

Perfect interoperability across different systems means a format can be fully implemented in any application, regardless of the platform or system on which that application operates. Every respective system would be able to access a document's content and layout parameters to provide perfect document fidelity to the original. While neither ODF or OOXML offers perfect interoperability, we can judge each one's performance based on its proximity to perfection as well as its potential to reach a high practical level of interoperability for business processes.

It is sufficient that an open document format should be easily read, authored, and edited from within different system environments and across different applications. Content should be transmitted without loss, and presentation layout should be rendered with fidelity by alternative applications operating on different platforms.

(A) ODF

ODF-supporting applications are available on all major computing platforms such as Windows, Linux, Solaris, AIX, Mac OS, and a variety of web-based online document-editing applications, like Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Users can create documents with the wide variety of ODF-supporting applications on any of these platforms and exchange them with users working on different platforms.

Simple documents are being exchanged with high levels of fidelity today. For example, OpenOffice.org can open, read, and edit simple text documents originated in Koffice or AbiWord. While certain formatting problems can occur (typically with more complex documents), loss of content is infrequent in single-trip file transfers.xv Content and layout fidelity in roundtrip document exchange in collaborative work group situations (passing a document back and forth repeatedly) is imperfect but can be improved; there are no technical impediments to achieving better if not perfect roundtrip performance between all ODF-ready applications of the same vintage.xvi

(B) OOXML

OOXML presents problems for document interoperability across multiple platforms.xvii Shortcomings exist in four areas: 1) platform dependencies; 2) application dependencies; 3) inadequate specification; and 4) poorly-designed XML. While not meant to be an exhaustive list, the problems highlighted below reflect the dependencies upon the Microsoft Windows operating system(s) and Microsoft Office application(s) that pose the most obvious and significant threat to OOXML's interoperability:

  1. Platform dependencies of OOXML

    Certain platform dependencies of OOXML are features that can only be implemented or optimized for Windows. Document files containing such features will break or not function the same way in non-Microsoft environments. Examples include:

    System dependencies like these make it unappealing, difficult, and in most cases impossible to conduct work productively without Microsoft software.xxii These examples are not exhaustive.

  2. Application dependencies of OOXML

    OOXML documents' collaborative functionality and integration with e-mail and other applications depend upon further purchases of additional software from Microsoft.xxiii The following capabilities are not available to OOXML files when they are accessed by software other than Microsoft software:


  3. Inadequate Specification

    To the extent that a format feature is only partially specified or not specified at all, other vendors' products will not be interoperable with it. Examples include:


  4. Poorly Designed XML

    Engineers in the field agree there are certain practices with respect to the use of XML from which it appropriate not to depart. Otherwise, the notion of a standard format for accessing data across disparate systems is defeated once unique techniques are put to use in particular environments which do not translate to others. OOXML disregards sensible XML practices in the following ways:

(C) Conclusion

ODF is independent of any particular platform or application, whereas OOXML is either dependent upon, or optimized for, a catalog of Microsoft software applications and platforms and does not function fully with non-Microsoft software. The practical effect of such dependencies is that the use of OOXML by individuals or within work groups will require the purchase of licenses of Microsoft operating systems on both the desktop and the server as well as Microsoft Office 2007.

Final Conclusion & Recommendation

Pressure from customers, including many governments, has pushed technology companies toward openness and ODF. Microsoft has responded with its new format, OOXML. However, a close examination of the origins, technical specifications and follow-up implementations of both formats reveals significant differences. Where ODF meets the four objective criteria of open standards handsomely, OOXML does not satisfy any of the four as extensively.

ODF showcases how an inclusive, consensus-driven, transparent development process can produce a standard that is available to everyone. OOXML's weaknesses begin at the fundamental level: its goals conflict. While the format proposes itself as a solution to backward compatibility, its approach, design, and execution block full implementation by entities other than Microsoft. The great promise of XML, interoperability, cannot be achieved with OOXML. Ultimately, the format's conflicting objectives make it a poor candidate for a global standard.

In light of such fundamental limitations, basic questions need to be resolved before OOXML is considered for use on any basis and certainly as a potential standard. The questions resonate: How can OOXML with its lack of an open life-cycle, lack of complete documentation in the specification, lack of multiple software implementations, and lack of interoperability across diverse platforms meet the legal as well as practical needs in the organization for long-term document archiving and for accommodating the flow of information correctly through business processes across different types of systems?

ICT executives and policy-makers will be looking carefully at their own objectives in deciding which document format is appropriate for their users and for the long-term viability of their systems and information culture. It is no longer necessary to accept the one solution offered. And it is important to get this particular decision right, given the practical and strategic importance of the document format today.

Footnotes

i  http://www.iso.org/iso/en/commcentre/pressreleases/2006/Ref1004.html

ii  "ISO to Fast Track...", Scott Fulton, Beta News, Mar. 17, 2007
(http://www.betanews.com/article/ISO_to_FastTrack_Office_Open_XML_Process/1173731196)

iii http://www.odfalliance.org/resources/GlobalViewODFPolicy.pdf

iv There are numerous overlapping definitions of open software standards. Proposals exist from the Open Source Initiative (http://perens.com/OpenStandards/Definition.html), the European Union's Interoperability Framework (http://europa.eu.int/idabc/en/document/3761), the Danish government's definition of open standards (http://www.oio.dk/files/040622_Definition_of_open_standards.pdf), the "Krechmer Requirements" (http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.csrstds.com%2Fopenstds.pdf&ei=itBcRtjJNoP4wQKDvpyvBQ&usg=AFrqEzfBPDJ6VDzjbviLByt9zwcUkReMVw&sig2=BoL6-Cxk20VCdg56OQDiXQ) among others.

v  http://www.ecma-international.org/memento/TC45.htm

vi  ODF specification version 1.1 (http://docs.oasis-open.org/office/v1.1/OS/OpenDocument-v1.1.pdf)

vii  "...pushing through an overcomplex proposal in a very short time frame." (http://press.ffii.org/Press_releases/FFII_opposes_Fasttrack_adoption_of_Microsoft_OOXML_format_as_ISO_standar)

viii  "How to hire Guillaume Portes" by Rob Weir (http://www.robweir.com/blog/2006/01/how-to-hire-guillaume-portes.html)

ix  The OOXML specification includes the following note relating to each of the named legacy deprecated feature tags: "Guidance: To faithfully replicate this behavior, applications must imitate the behavior of that application, which involves many possible behaviors and cannot be faithfully placed into narrative for this Office Open XML Standard. If applications wish to match this behavior, they must utilize and duplicate the output of those applications. It is recommended that applications not intentionally replicate this behavior as it was deprecated due to issues with its output, and is maintained only for compatibility with existing documents from that application. end guidance" This is an apologia for the lack of documentation in the OOXML for the named items.

x  The author's "Analyzing the OOXML License" (http://fussnotes.typepad.com/plexnex/2007/01/analyzing_the_m.html)

xi  Sun Microsystems' covenant-not-to-sue (http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/office/ipr.php)

xii  http://www.softwarefreedom.org/resources/2006/OpenDocument.html

xiii  Marbux, General Counsel to the OpenDocument Foundation, Inc., 501(c)3, comments on Jeremy Allison's article, "Crushed by the Wheels of Industry" (http://talkback.zdnet.com/5208-11048-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=33784&messageID=621428&start=-1)

xiv For a detailed accounting, reference the number of entries on OOXML at http://www.groklaw.net/staticpages/index.php?page=20051216153153504

xv Despite lingering technical and approach problems with the Microsoft / Clever Age ODF Add-in project for Word on Sourceforge, the list there of MS Word application features not supported by the ODF specification is accurate (http://odf-converter.sourceforge.net/features.html#unsupportedODT). The list indicates ways a document's formatting can be predicted to break when translating from Microsoft (.doc, for example) to ODF (.odt) formats. In addition to non-alignment of the different formats, honest differences of application design create interoperability dysfunction which manifests as file content or layout breakages that disturb productivity in work groups where mixed desktops exist.

xvi Poor document roundtrip performance also plagues collaboration between users of different vintages of Microsoft Office.

xvii Groklaw's "EOOXML Objections," Jan. 2007 (http://www.grokdoc.net/index.php/EOOXML_objections)

xviii Microsoft Developer Network's explanation of the DevMode data structure (http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms535771.aspx).

xix  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globally_Unique_Identifier

xx This page reference to the OOXML specification may be obsolete, since ECMA has posted revisions numerous times since the specification first went "final."

xxi This page reference to the OOXML specification may be obsolete, since ECMA has posted revisions numerous times since the specification first went "final."

xxii Engineering such dependencies with intent is an integral part of software vendors' traditional business models and a source of vendors' ability to influence software purchase decisions. Open source software and open standards–such as ODF–are making it easier for customers to determine what software they need, when they need it, how much they pay and whether license management takes up their time or not.

xxiii The information on system requirements for using Microsoft Office (its commercial implementation of the OOXML standard) clearly indicates that "Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 is required for certain advanced functionality" (see http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/suites/HA101668651033.aspx#5). The OOXML specification lacks the required documentation on what specific elements of OOXML are not independently implementable.

xxiv Clip-art should not be defined in the file format since clip-art licensing is not uniform or standard on every platform and this creates another operating system and application dependency (http://www.grokdoc.net/index.php/EOOXML_Objections_Clearinghouse#Inappropriate_user-interface_specifications:_Clip_Art) and (http://lnxwalt.wordpress.com/2007/04/06/to-the-members-of-the-california-state-assembly/).

xxv This page reference to the OOXML specification may be obsolete, since ECMA has posted revisions numerous times since the specification first went "final."

xxvi This page reference to the OOXML specification may be obsolete, since ECMA has posted revisions numerous times since the specification first went "final."

xxvii This page reference to the OOXML specification may be obsolete, since ECMA has posted revisions numerous times since the specification first went "final."

xxviii OOXML relies on undisclosed information (http://www.grokdoc.net/index.php/EOOXML_Objections_Clearinghouse#Ecma_376_relies_on_undisclosed_information).

xxix 'Bitmasks cause significant XML validation, among several other, problems.' (http://www.grokdoc.net/index.php/EOOXML_Objections_Clearinghouse#Ecma_376_uses_bitmasks.2C_inhibiting_extensibility_and_use_of_standard_XML_tools)

xxx This page reference to the OOXML specification may be obsolete, since ECMA has posted revisions numerous times since the specification first went "final."

xxxi Legacy application bug carry-forwards would not occur in a format that is developed by open consensus of multiple parties (http://www.grokdoc.net/index.php/EOOXML_Objections_Clearinghouse#The_Gregorian_Calendar).

xxxii This page reference to the OOXML specification may be obsolete, since ECMA has posted revisions numerous times since the specification first went "final."

xxxiii As part of the expressed goals of W3C XML, it is important to respect standard naming conventions for readability and honor the principle of consistency in a specification. OOXML does not (http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-xml/#sec-origin-goals) and (http://www.grokdoc.net/index.php/EOOXML_Objections_Clearinghouse#Poor_names_and_inconsistent_naming_conventions_for_elements_and_attributes) and (http://www.openmalaysiablog.com/2007/01/ooxml_has_poor_.html).

Sam Hiser is Vice President & Director Business Affairs at the OpenDocument Foundation, Inc. He was advisor to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Information Technology Division on its pilot of OpenDocument-ready software this year. Hiser also blogs at www.PlexNex.com.


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