Microsoft to finally support OOXML, ODF 1.2

Microsoft recently announced that the next edition of the company’s office suite, called Office 2013, will support the OOXML document standard in its file formats. That’s a little surprising if you consider that Microsoft pulled out all the stops and opened its bag of dirty tricks to get OOXML adopted as a standard, first by ECMA in 2006 and then by ISO in 2008.

Promises, promises

This is a very public admission by Microsoft that they haven’t actually implemented OOXML until now – despite everything their sales people have apparently been telling clients in business and the public sector. Let’s all repeat together one more time: “Microsoft has so far not implemented proper OOXML support in its products.”

Microsoft seemingly has a knack for forgetting the odd promise. In July 2012, the European Commission had to remind the company that it had somehow forgotten to implement the commitments it made to settle a competition complaint. The Commission could decide to charge Microsoft up to 10% of annual revenue as a fine for this unprecedented breach of a settlement.

OOXML is tremendously over-complex as a standard. The standard document runs to a cool 6,000 pages (by comparison, this edition of the complete works of Shakespeare makes do with a mere 1,424 pages, and is a much more interesting read.) Still, a published specification is better than a secret file  format. It should become easier to achieve greater compatibility between Microsoft’s Office suite and Free Software programs.

But Microsoft intentionally made OOXML so complex that perfect compatibility with the much clearer ODF standards will remain hard to achieve. The standard also contains internal contradictions, and it does not appear that these have been resolved – for example, plentiful references to other proprietary forrmats. Microsoft promised to fix these in later revisions of the standard, but we haven’t seen any such revisions.

Defaulting on users?

But will strict OOXML be the default file format in Office 2013? Most people use whatever format their program tells them is the default. If the current, broken OOXML-transitional format remains as default, then Microsoft’s support for OOXML-strict will remain purely theoretical. And when will Microsoft drop support for OOXML-transitional?

As long as the company’s programs use the secret, proprietary OOXML-transitional as the default format, users will merely open files in other formats and save them in a way that nobody except Microsoft’s customers can read, thus hoovering even more documents into Redmond’s proprietary universe.

So, while it’s good news that Microsoft is planning to follow through on its 2008 promises some time in 2012 or 2013, it’s not exactly a revolution. The company also promises that Office 2013 will have full support for ODF 1.2. It remains to be seen how well Microsoft will treat the main rival to its own proprietary formats. It seems unwise to expect an excess of fairness.