Is Office Suite Markup worth the trouble?

By Simon St. Laurent
August 13, 2008 | Comments: 3

In his Extreme "first person" talk yesterday, Patrick Durusau asked some of the right questions about the recent explosive battles over standardizing XML generated by Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org. I can't share his conviction, though, that getting through this firefight is actually worthwhile.

Durusau connected the Office Suite battles to XML's long-standing quest for platform independence, freedom from vendor lock-in, reliable longevity of data, and many of the other ideals that have motivated the core community over the years. He articulated the basic problem that has kept users from a deep interest in XML for documents over the years: they don't care about technical issues like XML validity, but rather about "you had it, I got it, and now I can look at it."

Durusau, though an editor of ODF, has been remarkably even-handed in his discussions of the office format scrum, seeing the battle as more of a distraction from the value of the underlying project than a sign that the underlying project has a deep flaw. I applaud his generosity, but find his even-handed disposition all too positive about the value of what's actually been accomplished.

Patrick Durusau discusses office markup.

The underlying formats are both improvements in openness, yes, relative to the previous pain of interpreting obscure binary file formats for which interchange was an afterthought. Those improvements, however, aren't particularly the reason for the standardization battle. While I've perceived ODF as having a more open process than OOXML, both formats had lots of software before they arrived at the question of how best to share their data. The battle over standardization is less a battle over formats and more a battle over who gets to label their products as "open" to various markets.

Users, even the large organizations who might be expected to take greatest advantage of using these newly open formats to build new projects, haven't shown all that much interest in doing so. I drank the Microsoft Kool-Aid about how Office 2003's XML formats would lead to a new wider world of XML processing, but that proved wrong on so incredibly many fronts that I can only look back with dismay. Not only weren't people interested in creating the custom XML that was a key part of that pitch to XML audiences, even the basic change of "everyone will save their files as XML and you can look inside" hasn't led to a great uptick of interest.

The people looking inside the files are still the same small group of conversion houses, publishers, lawyers, and a very few others with a powerful interest in taking documents apart. OOXML and ODF make the lives of these specialists marginally easier, but between the continuing challenges of "you got your object model in my XML" and the more fundamental problem of humans using their office software in proudly unstructured ways, there's only so much you can do with a huge pile of offfice documents. XML makes them a little bit easier to work with, but doesn't change their basic content or (lack of) structure.

That's left the standards battle as primarily a war over corporate turf, with partisans summoning their legions to battle with the same emotional war cries as we've seen over the past decade or so. Yes, it's cool, as Jim Mason pointed out, that there are street demonstrations in Oslo over an XML standard. It's good to see interest, however twisted, in the standards processes that help us achieve consensus on technical foundations.

It's not at all clear to me, however, that the "carrot" Durusau mentioned, of 400 million users, really exists, at least from a markup perspective. That may well be the market that the vendors are fighting over, but it's hard for me to see any great benefit coming to those 400 million users.

It would be nice to be wrong in this instance, to find that the Kool-Aid I drank in 2002 and 2003 actually had some nutritional value, but at this point it's hard for me to find signs that these conversations actually lead somewhere. Sam Hunting had a great suggestion that all of these documents create a wonderful opportunity for information recyclers to come in, and he's right that there's an opportunity. The problem may be, as is often the case, that the people producing the waste stream aren't all that careful about separating the different components on their way out the door.

We probably need more people like Patrick in these fields, and fewer like me. His optimism may yet bear fruit, while I'm definitely retreating from the field.


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3 Comments

I tend to agree. To the extent we have a majority of users out there using their word processor as an glorified typewriter, creating unstructured documents, avoiding named styles, selecting text left and right and applying bold here, and 24 point center aligned here, then XML is just syntactic sugar. Open syntactic sugar to be sure, but merely re-tooling your father's WYSIWYG format into XML doesn't change much else.

However, XML office document formats like ODF permit a more structured approach, although they do not force it. If someone wants to write a word processor that enforces content/style separation, at a high level, they could do it in ODF. If they wanted to allow inline semantic elements in content, they could do it. If they wanted to expand beyond the conventional capabilities and limitations of a word processor they could do it, and serialize to ODF.

That's where it gets exciting. Unlike the Office 2003 promises, ODF is not merely another monopolist selling you something. ODF comes along with an increase in diversity of tools available. It is not just MS Office. And with this increased diversity we see increased innovation, and a reexamination of what text editing means in an office environment. That's the real mechanism at play here -- create an open standard, break the vendor lock-in, increase innovation and choice, and allow bright people to do bright things with XML, but with lower barrier to entry and lower risk, since they are building on a format that is already (or soon to be) supported by every major word processor out there.

XML office document formats like ODF permit a more structured approach, although they do not force it. If someone wants to write a word processor that enforces content/style separation, at a high level, they could do it in ODF. If they wanted to allow inline semantic elements in content, they could do it. If they wanted to expand beyond the conventional capabilities and limitations of a word processor they could do it, and serialize to ODF.(If you want more knowledge about XML and Office you can look at kswchina,there are some knowledge about it but chinaese.It's a good learning Chinese place too! )

That's where it gets exciting. Unlike the Office 2003 promises, ODF is not merely another monopolist selling you something. ODF comes along with an increase in diversity of tools available. It is not just MS Office. And with this increased diversity we see increased innovation, and a reexamination of what text editing means in an office environment.

I like Office 2003 . It simple and easy to use, anyone can quickly learn how to use it.

An interesting article ,thanks for you, Simon St. Laurent ,We expect you to write more good articles .

The problem with office software is it is an attempt to re-create the paper office using a computer. The argument ever ODF/OOXML is basically arguing over the colour of the flag that used to be walked in front of cars to stop them scaring the horses.
In the old days paper used to get misfiled. Nowadays all data is hidden in documents and effectively misfiled. Now we can pay fortunes to mine for data in our own documents.
We have networks hammered by repeated redundant data.
Companies change phone numbers and manually update 100's of templates. We have to print documents as they are unreadable on screen.
I have worked for companies who used to be able to download 1000's of simple order documents straight into their erp system. The same company now employs hundreds to manually translate Word orders into their erp.
Companies expansion is seriously hampered by office software.
Style lasts seconds - organising your data properly saves you a lifetime of effort but one your officed it often proved impossible.
As they say in Cornwall "You don't want to start from here!"

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