Critics Cry Foul Over Ecma Flap

Microsoft’s announcement last week that it is submitting its Office 12 Open XML formats to a standards body may have assuaged bureaucrats in the Massachusetts governor’s office, but if anything it has escalated the “open” versus “proprietary” debate.

Ecma International, the Geneva, Switzerland-based standards body that Microsoft has said it will submit its Office Open XML to, has been criticized as being more lenient about issues such as retention of intellectual property ownership, patent rights and royalties than some others. Critics say the vendor has no place in controlling a technology once it’s been submitted as a standard -- control of the standard should reside entirely with the standards organization.

However, after Microsoft’s announcement of its planned submission last week, the Bay State’s executive branch indicated the company’s move was good enough. (See, “Microsoft's Schema Submission Softens Massachusetts' OpenDoc Stance,” November 29, 2005.)

“The Commonwealth is very pleased with Microsoft's progress in creating an open document format,” said Thomas Trimarco, secretary of the Commonwealth's Executive Office for Administration and Finance, in a statement. “If Microsoft follows through as planned, we are optimistic that Office Open XML will meet our new standards for acceptable open formats.”

And that has competitors and critics hopping mad.

“I think what people really want is a format that is legally unencumbered and is stable and decent . . . and we have one [OpenDocument, an OASIS standard signed off last spring] of those here today ready to go, implemented in shipping software, so I really have to wonder why we’re spinning our wheels to push another one through the same process,” said Tim Bray, co-creator of XML and Sun Microsystems’ director of Web technologies, in a phone interview. “The whole point of having standards organizations is that you can’t control the outcome. That’s the way it should be anyhow.”

Indeed, Carl Cargill, Sun’s director of corporate standards fired off an immediate letter to Trimarco (with a copy to governor Mitt Romney) complaining that the Commonwealth is backsliding on its own protracted evaluation process and ultimate decision to require that office applications save files natively in OpenDoc formats. The original decision clearly favored the state’s executive branch switching from Microsoft Office to Sun’s just recently released StarOffice 8, which coincidentally supports OpenDoc natively.

And Cargill wanted to make the point that promises are only that.

“This process should not end with the acceptance of a promise from those who seek to maintain a costly status quo, which accrues only to one company’s bottom line and denies the citizens of the Commonwealth the value they deserve from their tax dollars,” reads Cargill’s letter, which was posted on another Sun executive’s blog.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.