Is OpenXML now a standard?

Today we learned that ECMA International has accepted Microsofts OpenXML as an ECMA standard, and that it did so against the vote of IBM. This is bad news for Open Standards, Free Software, competition and consumers.

As explained in my article Novells "Danaergeschenk" (also on Groklaw), it is close to impossible that anyone would be able to create an implementation of OpenXML that would be competitive to Microsoft’s. IBM does not consider it technologically or economically feasible, as Bob Sutor explained in his personal blog. This is also why IBM voted against accepting the OpenXML format in ECMA.

A specification of 6’000 pages is like a diet of 10’000 kilocalories per day. If Weight Watchers were advocating that as a recommended diet on request of McDonalds, people would wonder what is going on. Yet this seems quite similar to what he majority of ECMA’s general assembly apparently has just decided to do.

Just like there could be (and are) whole flight simulators hidden in Microsoft’s Office products, there is no telling what kind of hooks are hidden in this vast amount of documentation. But some hooks are already known: The containers do not use industry standards, such as SVG, they are catered to Microsofts proprietary world. So any attempt to implement OpenXML would require to implement large parts of Microsofts proprietary world — and possibly some of its internal working, which is no doubt heavily patented.

So can OpenXML be a standard? Wikipedia defines standardisation as

Standardization or standardisation, in the context related to technologies and industries, is the process of establishing a technical standard among competing entities in a market, where this will bring benefits without hurting competition.

The emphasis here is mine to highlight why OpenXML does not qualify as a standard, much less an Open Standard: OpenXML is singularily defined and driven by Microsoft. In this it has entered into complex agreements with other companies that have become dependent partners of Microsoft on OpenXML — and are thus no longer competing on this market.


So OpenXML is neither open, nor is it a standard. It is a one-way street of migration to Microsoft Office with the promise of dependency on that proprietary format and implementation in the future.

Other office packages would be well-advised to stay far away from it, as OpenXML will make their users second-class citizens in a Microsoft world where they will need to save as OpenXML, and will encounter numerous problems with documents they get from Microsoft users.

If given the choice between that scenario and one in which people send around ODF documents which Microsoft Office cannot open, but which work perfectly with any other office suite as well as online services, I know which one I prefer.

It may be time to readjust the receiving end of incompatibility issues that were forced upon all users by Microsoft.

About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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