Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Truce in the Standards Wars?

Microsoft's decision to "open" their Office document formats seems to have begun a truce period in the wars over document standards. It is only a truce. Believe me when I say that Microsoft's recent actions will satisfy only some of those concerned with this issue. This is to tell you both why that is so and how it may be a non-issue from here on out. Only time will tell; as customers vote with their adoption of software, be it Microsoft's or some other productivity applications.

Of course; this all started when the State of Massachusetts decided to adopt Open Document Format and Adobe's PDF as the "official" document formats for the State's business, whether incoming or outgoing. This was done with the best of intentions. They wanted to assure that documents could be read in a hundred years. Documents put up in a proprietary format could not guarantee that and, in fact, still can't. But if the standard is sufficiently open, there will be no problem.

Of course; the definition of "open" takes some discerning. Some would have us believe that being open means the standard itself evolves by community input. Microsoft's file formats fall short when using this definition. Microsoft is the sole arbiter of what goes into them.

Massachusetts did something rather canny and wise, though. They decided to take Adobe's PDF as the baseline of their definition of open. There is a tendency to see Adobe's PDF (Portable Document Format) as wholly proprietary. After all; Adobe alone decided and will continue to decide what goes into it. However; the format is well documented (and in a timely manner) and, should I decide to build an application which uses it in any way, the license says I am free to do so. I don't even have to ask Adobe or tell them I'm doing it. (Though I once had a conversation with an Adobe developer who said they would like an email or a post card so they can see where the format is being used and how- for reference purposes. In fact; no one does it.) This liberal licensing is thought to be open enough to guarantee the ability to read the documents over the [very] long term.

At the very first; this setting of standards for document formats did in fact exclude Microsoft, who are pledged not to support the ODF. But, if Microsoft opens the document format they use and cooperates in documenting it, that should be good enough. They have to license it liberally enough, but with their announcement of today, that seems something they are pledged to do, and quickly.

I know that Office file formats have long been something of a moving target, changing frequently. This has made for compatibility problems with other applications. However; Adobe seems to have managed to evolve PDF in such as way as to only rarely cause compatibility problems. As those changes were quickly documented, developers using PDF in their applications had only small problems and readily available ways to solve them. Microsoft can surely do the same, if they will. Combine this with Office 12's inclusion of the ability to format documents in PDF and save them that way, and Microsoft seems to have hurdled the bar.

I am one of those proponents of completely open standards, such as the ODF. I am also a pragmatist and I have long believed that the way Adobe has handled PDF is "good enough". I will say that if Microsoft follows that same path with their Office file formats, that will be good enough for me. And I believe it will be enough to make formatting a non-issue with most customers. For the rest, there are readily available and compatible solutions.


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