What good is a standard that's not standard?

With Office 2007 on the horizon and the introduction of the new Open XML file format for saving files, a lot of news and noise has been generated about the need for a truly open standard for opening and saving files. One of the most popular alternative and ‘open’ file formats is the Open Document standard. Although it sounds great in theory to have one open standard for files, but when you look at the implementations, OpenDoc is pretty lousy standard.

The need for an open file standard is pretty evident. Microsoft has dominated the office suite market for over 10 years now. By changing the file format with every revision of Office, it used to force-march the market forward into upgrading to the latest version. The file formats (.DOC for Word, XLS for Excel, and PPT for PowerPoint) have been relatively stable since Office 2000 appeared, but prior to that, every new version of Office introduced a default file format that was incompatible with the last. Sure, you could change the default to the old formats, or at least Save As in the old formats, but often users just wouldn’t or didn’t know how. If you exchanged documents with people in other organizations who were using a different version, then there was a problem opening those documents.

The Open Document standard was created to solve such problems. It was created with the thought that by having a body other than a single vendor control and issue a standard for document exchange, that anyone could use any program and be able to view and modify documents from whatever the source. Organizations such as the State of Massachusetts and others quickly hopped on the bandwagon.

It all sounds great in theory. The problem is this: it doesn’t work. Take for example the ODT format for saving documents. Theoretically, I can create a document in Open Office, save it in ODT, and then open it in any word processor and it will view fine, with all of the formatting and content in place.

But wait: Microsoft doesn’t support the format. So that quickly eliminates 95% of the market. But at least it will open correctly in the remaining 5% right? Nope.

Take the following screen shots for example. These show the exact same document opened in Open Office 2.0.3 in Linux, KWord in Linux, and Writely under Firefox also on Linux. All of these programs should display the document exactly the same way, but they don’t. The KWord version clearly has formatting issues, and Writely doesn’t even select the right font, let alone get the spacing correct.

OpenOffice writer

A Guild Note in OpenOffice.



The same Guild Note in KWord.



The same Guild Note in Writely.

What kind of standard is it that doesn’t create a standard display? Not much of one if you ask me


Fortunately, there is a ‘standard’ in place today. A couple of them actually. First, for documents, there’s the old RTF format. Just about every Word processor since DisplayWrite 4.0 supports RTF. It preserves most formatting and is a universal format. Another universal standard is the good old Word DOC standard. It’s the defacto standard for saving documents as it is. Although some formatting may be lost when you go from word processor to word processor, it’s at least as good as the OpenDoc standard I just showed you.


Plus, even though Microsoft ‘controls’ the DOC and other Office standards, there’s not much they can do about it. Because it’s been in place since Office 2000, Microsoft can’t suddenly change it and hope to get any traction. As it is, Microsoft is concerned that Open XML will die a slow painful death because of the ubiquity of the old Office formats.

The point is, there’s no reason to have a ‘standard’ just for standard’s sake. Often the market will dictate what a given standard is and when it does, the power of the market will often remove the ability of the original maker from being able to control the standard. The ISA/PS2 bus fiasco IBM found itself in in the 90’s is a perfect example of this.

Microsoft created the standard and now is held hostage to it because of its success. Any vendor can read and write Microsoft file formats and beyond grumbling and gnashing of teeth, there’s little Microsoft can do about it. The Open Document ‘standard’ shows how ineffective governmental and quasi-governmental entities are when compared to the power of the marketplace.

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