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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
If you've used the newest
version of Microsoft Office (2007 for Windows or 2008 for Mac OS),
you may have noticed that it supports a new set of file formats for
the various document types, all ending in "X". "X" used to stand for
eXperimental (remember the
Whether you realize it or not, there's been a bit of a storm brewing over document format. Back in 2005, the State of Massachusetts was considering adoption of open formats for State documents. This has wider implications for the applications used to produce documents. If an application doesn't support an open format, use of such an application would be discouraged.
For years, Microsoft Office document formats have been the de facto standard. Other applications have featured the ability to read and write documents in the Microsoft format. The new idea from the Massachusetts's initiative was that documents should be stored in a format that is agreed upon by a public standard-setting organizations. At the time, the Open Document Format (ODF), supported by the OpenOffice application suite, was one of the few standards that were acceptable under the new proposal.
Of course, if it's standards we want, it's standards that Microsoft will give us, at least their version. OOXML is the name of the format used for those "X" files written by Office 2007. Microsoft even got it adopted as a standard by Ecma, a European private standards organization. More recently, the OOXML was apparently accepted as a standard by the ISO, however, despite Microsoft's heralding approval of the standard, it has hit a snag in its approval. Because of appeals by four countries, ISO has put publication of OOXML on hold pending resolution of the appeals process.
Even if a standard is available for implementation by any software developer, it does not mean that it is particularly useful to the online community. In a white paper comparing ODF and OOXML, Edward Macnaghten writes, "We are of the view that the format appears to be designed by Microsoft for Microsoft products, and to inter-operate with the Microsoft environment. Little thought appears to have been exercised regarding interoperability with non-Microsoft environments or compliance with established vendor-neutral standards." Others have alleged that Office 2007 is not even compliant with the OOXML standard as defined by Microsoft in their ISO submission.
All this talk of standards may seem esoteric, but it has a definite affect on the software we use on a daily basis. Microsoft's pattern in the past has been to introduce new file formats with the introduction of new software versions. This has tended to cause confusion during a transition process between versions and has tended to force people or organizations to adopt the new version lest they be left behind and unable to read the new format. If all software used the same format for file storage, then competition would be based on features, and not on formats. This is true for HTML editors. Why can't it be true for Word Processors?