Eric Lai

A gadfly's take on IBM's 'support' for Open XML

By Eric Lai
January 22, 2008 6:21 PM EST

Interested in getting a non-Microsoft/IBM reaction to the news that Big Blue was supporting Office Open XML in a handful of its products, I talked to Sam Hiser, one of the heads of the OpenDocument Foundation Inc., a pro ODF group which Hiser dissolved late last year after becoming disillusioned with the document format. His views were surprising and thought-provoking.

First, some background: Hiser is a software developer who also happens to have an MBA from Duke University. The Bostonian got involved with OpenOffice.org in late 2001 after the firm he was working for started failing post-9/11. Several months later, he was the marketing lead for OpenOffice.org, where, according to Hiser, he helped brew the ODF camp's strategy over document formats, what he now sardonically refers to as the ODF "Kool-Aid."

Hiser then ran the Foundation for several years with another developer, Gary Edwards, before deciding that ODF "is not the open format with the open process we thought it was" and embracing the Compound Document Format, (CDF) developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) instead. Hiser is currently keeping up with the debate via his blog, PlexNex.

On the revelation that some of IBM's products would support a document format that it officially, adamantly opposes, Hiser is not surprised one bit. IBM and Sun have both had "the magic blueprints" to Microsoft's document formats, including Open XML, for the past several years, Hiser said.

With that key technical interoperability information, "how could you not expect IBM to start coding around OOXML?" he asked.

IBM did not offer an official reaction, though one of its employees, Rob Weir, in his blog An Antic Disposition tried to minimize the PR gaffe.

While acknowledging that the IBM software in question did support Open XML, he argued that the support is so cursory that it hardly mattered.

"Does pureXML support OOXML? It sure does!!! In fact it supports any well-formed XML document or fragment, OOXML, ODF, BerniesOldTimeMedicineShowAndJamboreeML, whatever you have," Weir wrote. "So welcome, OOXML, to the exclusive company of 'Every Document Format Known to Man,' I'm glad that you are so excited."

But Hiser points out that Weir, by acknowledging that Open XML can be used to create "well-formed" XML data, appears to contradict IBM's typical rhetoric, such as vice president of standards Bob Sutor's blog in March 2007 describing Office Open XML as a "monstrously large, not particularly good XML and so not amenable to easy processing by standard XML tools."

"Weir's comment, if you parse it, argues the opposite of IBM's usual position," Hiser said.

Hiser says he hasn't left the open-source fold and suddenly become a booster of all things Microsoft. But his former insider's view leaves him despairing that "open-source software is always working against its own interests."

Sun/OpenOffice.org's failure to advancing the XML features in the ODF format is one glaring example, he says. Not that it matters.

"At worst case, the ISO votes don't go Microsoft's way. Then we'll have more of this inane bickering, and customers will stay in wait and see mode," he says. "But Microsoft will eventually get ISO approval. They are bending over backwards. And nothing is going to stop Office 2007 once that happens."

What do you think of IBM's support for Open XML? Hypocrisy by Big Blue, or a tempest in a tea cup?