CyberTech Rambler

July 27, 2006

Design Decisions are never ending debates….

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 12:10 pm

So far, all my knowledge of OpenDocumentFormat (ODF) vs OpenXML shows that I have more information on the merits of ODF and criticism of OpenXML. Hence, it is rather refreshing to see Stephen McGibbon ripping into ODF in his blog. I do hope I can find others who are willing to do the same.

With either camps, one do not need to agree with their arguements or mud slinging, if any. The great thing is that both camps expose, analyze (correctly or incorrectly, but that is not the point) and criticise decisions making on the other camp. Filtering through these blog posts are educational for anyone who wants to see how standard writings works.

So far, the best impartial comparison is the wikipedia article on the topic.

The thing is, designing a document standard or any standard for that matter, requires a lot of design decisions. The design decisions are most needed in the “grey area”, this means endless debates, even in the design committee itself. If even the design committee has to compromise, just imagine how much ammo design decisions give to detractors.

[Aside: What triggered this blog post? A sequence of events of course. I listen to RedMonk’s podcast about the OpenXML translator project, which give a possible reason (Direct mapping to existing binary document format) for OpenXML non-mixed content approach (potentially easier for machine to parse, but not easy for human to read) as discussed in this GrokLaw article. Then it is McGibbon’s rumbling about (the lack of) SpreadSheet Formula in ODF. Today, I finally read Rob Weir’s article musing on OpenXML resurrecting a dead cat known as Vector Markup Language and how this bulged the OpenXML specification by 200+ pages.]



  1. I do agree that impartiality is hard to come by. But there’s a reason for that: it’s very hard to be impartial when one of the parties is a powerful and vicious predator, and everyone else potential victims. In such cases there is not really any such thing as a disinterested observer.

    I, as an end user, despite having no direct financial interest in either Microsoft or its competitors, am neither disinterested nor impartial. The fact is that this is not merely about technical superiority, although as a systems architect I believe strongly that ODF, if it is not already technically superior, will be so in a very short time.

    I will gladly accept less than perfection in backward compatibility; Microsoft offers nothing better today. I will gladly accept less than leading-edge features in spreadsheets, for now.

    I will gladly accept those things even if the alternative today is technically superior, because the competition that an open standard allows will quickly produce far better products at far lower prices. This is not the wishful thinking of an idealist, nor is it the drum-beating of a partisan; it is an absolutely pragmatic, so-far-unbroken law of economics that has proven especially true in the software world, and dramatically so in the last couple of years, with network-enabled worldwide collaboration finally demonstrating what was previously only understood by ivory-tower dreamers: that Microsoft’s claims about “freedom to innovate” were not only hollow but a deliberate and malicious deception.

    But most important of all is that the Office Open XML specification is, from everything that has come out, a standard that will, if adopted widely, further entrench an abusive monopoly. That alone is reason enough to oppose it, because in the whole history of business throughout the world, the effect of monopolies has never varied, but has always kept prices up and quality, innovation, and employment down.

    Comment by Brian Thomas — July 28, 2006 @ 10:02 pm | Reply

  2. Dear Brian Thomas,

    As you would had discovered, I am not impartial and I do favour ODF over OpenXML.

    ODF is a far superior format thant OpenXML. I based my judgement on one thing alone: No proprietary extension. This a practical one: People keeps sending me files in format that I do not have a reasonable expectation of fidelity, Take for example, people send me doc file with EndNotes (a bibliography management software) tag embeded. Since EndNote tags are not interpreted by I see blanks. Losing information this way makes the whole document useless to me, especially in journal papers where citation is important. I am furious as there is no good reason for this to happens. If I do not buy EndNotes, I should still be able to read and edit the final results output as text. After all, EndNote’s value is its ability to handle bibliographic entry well, not the final text that users see. This is why I think any proprietary extension is really evil.

    I also like the fact that ODF uses existing standard rather than reinvent the wheel.

    I haven’t tried out Office 2007 beta, but my gut instinct tells me that full fidelity and backward compatibility is just a dream. One can fully expects images to be misplaced, text being arranged slightly differently and things like this. It happens with Words 95 to Words 97 transition, why wouldn’t this happen again?

    If a person wants full fidelity, i.e., nothing misplaced etc, then neither ODF or OpenXML is the appropriate format. They need Desktop Publishing Software instead. The only people who insist on perfect formatting are bosses that need not struggle with the mundane task of cut-and-paste and fiddling with documents.

    Do I care whether a standard originated from a monopolist? No, standardization does not happens in vacuum. It has to start with someone donating an existing work, so why do one care whether the donor is a monopolist. However, we must insists that the standardization process is open and not too biased to the need/favour of the monopolist. In my humble opinion, OpenXML started out on the wrong foot by saying compatibility with MS Office, and only MS Office, as one of its main aim.

    The real war, unfortunately, is on adoption. Most users, like me, only encounter ODF or OpenXML indirectly via our Office application software. Increasingly, we see back office people tearing documents apart, extracting information from the document and store them on servers capable of permitting users to search inside these documents. Hence, I believe one of the real and decisive battleground could be back office automation. I believe we are seeing documents integrated into back office systems. If competitions flourish on the use of ODF in the back office, and we see big corporation migrating away from doc to ODF, rather than doc to OpenXML, this will have big impact on grassroot users like me who simply “follow the crowd”.

    Unfortunately when it comes to adoption, all the arguments about the technical superiority of the file format might just be teckie talk. Our CEO don’t care about superior standard, just one that makes him the most money. Thus, I believe we needs a set of APIs and free (as in free beer and freedom) libraries to manipulate ODF to lower the cost of entry into ODF world. I will hate to lose this battle because we did not forsee other programmer’s need.

    Comment by ctrambler — August 1, 2006 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

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