Is Office Open XML A One-Way Standard? Ask Microsoft

Way back in October, Bob Sutor, IBM’s open standards guru, wrote a piece on his blog where he described the Office Open XML standard as a one way standard, because the format is so complex and so geared towards compatibility with legacy Office compatibility that it could never be implemented as a fully functional file format by any competing personal productivity applications (PPAs) like WordPerfect and OpenOffice. I agree with a lot of his points but didn’t feel compelled to write about it since the issue had been covered pretty comprehensively in the blogosphere.

Today, though, a couple of interesting things happened that made me want to write about this. The first is that ECMA approved the Office XML standard over IBM’s objections. That got me thinking about Bob’s original piece again. The other is that Rick Schaut of Microsoft’s Mac BU wrote an article explaining very eloquently why the Mac version of Office won’t support the Open XML file format until sometime next year. What struck me when I read the latter piece is that Rick absolutely, positively proves Bob Sutor’s point when he explains what it would take to create a file converter from scratch for Mac Word:

[…] a team of 5 developers will implement 25 handlers a week, which means that we’d have all the XML handlers written in 44 weeks. […] Nevertheless, we’ve taken a little less than a year to get the converters reading the new file format. We still aren’t writing the new file format, we have the RTF side of things to worry about, which is actually more complex than the XML side, and I’ve completely left out all of the design and coding for the intermediate representation of the file. The intermediate representation, itself, is at least 6 to 8 months worth of work.

Got that? It would take 5 developers a year to do a quarter of the work. That means the whole job is roughly 20 man-years of development time. That doesn’t include testing, documentation, or localization. That would probably double the number of man-years, at least. But it gets worse:

This is just for Word. We need additional teams for Excel and PowerPoint.

Back of the envelope, we’re now talking about 120 man-years. For Mac Office, Microsoft decided such an investment wasn’t practical, so instead they waited for Win32 Office to go final and are now porting the Win32 code to the Mac:

Lastly, can we port the Win Word converter? Well, actually, in a way, porting the Win Word converter is exactly what we have been doing, but we’re still faced with having to wait until Win Word ships before we have the final source code to merge into what we’ve already ported. Once that merge is done, then we still have to go through several months’ worth of testing and bug fixing before they’re ready for public use.

But it gets even worse! There is a lot of commonality between the in-memory data model for Win32 Office and Mac Office, since they share a lot of the same code, but doing converters for a competitive product that has a different in-memory data model would require more development time and more compatibility testing time.

Breaking out my envelope again, we’re now looking at 150 man years to do the job for a competitive PPA. How can competitors afford to make that level of investment? Novell says they will support import and export for Open XML with financial and technical help from Microsoft. Corel says they’ll do it too. Guess we’ll need to wait and see how successful they’ll be at maintaining fidelity and compatibility, though given what Rick has to say, I’m not super confident.

~ by Andrew Shebanow on 07Dec06.

9 Responses to “Is Office Open XML A One-Way Standard? Ask Microsoft”

  1. While your observations about the costs might be correct, you are completely ignoring the value to implmenting Open XML. Remember, commercial PPA software generates revenues in the area of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars per year, so for there commercial endeavors, I think the investment is very reasonable.

    In the open source world, you have a much larger, but free, talent base available, so I think the effort in for open-source apps like OOo is also quite reasonable. Implementing this standard unlocks compatibility with hundreds of millions of Office users worldwide, which is a very good thing.

    Your argument that it is a bad standard because it is too hard to implement is bogus. ODF is easier only because it doesn’t meet all the requirements. When you look at what end-users want, they want an application that supports file formats that meet all their needs; they do not specificially want something that was easy for the developers to implement. End users don’t care about the input effort, they only care about the results.

  2. While I understand that OpenXML is more complex to implement than ODF, can you make a back of the envelope calculation of what would be the length of building a converter to ODF for an office suite. Is it substantially less than 150 man-years ?

  3. Tom,

    I never said Open XML was a “bad standard”. I do think that making a converter for it that can do round-trip conversions is incredibly difficult, and that is what I was discussing here. Overall, though, I think Open XML is a big step forward for Microsoft – its certainly a lot better than unspecified binary formats like Office used to have.

    ND – I don’t know enough about ODF to answer, I’m afraid. Perhaps someone who has worked on the Office converters for ODF could speak to that.

  4. I don’t see what the problem is. People wanted to be able to write software like and compatible with MS Office. Now they can. Nobody ever said it had to be be cheap or easy.

  5. Hey, I’ve been dugg! Also, a big thank you to Bob Sutor, Simon Phipps, and Tim Bray for the linkage…

    Digg Link

  6. Seems to me like Mac users are adopting OpenOffice and NeoOffice very quickly right now, and this delay of half-a-year will just encourage more of them to migrate.

    For a while now I have thought that the tipping point from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice and other ODF suites will occur much sooner on the Mac than on Windows. This problem for MS Office is only going to hasten that day!

    In fact, I wonder if MS Office 2007 on the Mac will even matter that much at all. Marginalization and irrelevance seem like very possible scenarios for it.

  7. Now I understand fully why I suggested to Bob Sutor that IBM tell Microsoft to do a full and complete implementation of the MS OOXML for IBM’s WAS CE, if MS wanted IBM to take it seriously as a worthy international file format standard!

    I had figured it was a bit big, since it usually takes quite a bit of time to download the PDFs over dialup – but these sorts of figures put it into perspective!

    Now if IBM challenged Microsoft to do this, and Microsoft bailed out about half-way through, that would be more eloquent a testimony than anything else, that MS OOXML doesn’t have what it takes to survive in the big bad world of international business.

  8. Now if someone could explain me why the world has to take everything MS does up to the point to base their development plans on it…

    OpenOffice is free and great, may be not perfect yet, but it will be more than appropiate for 99% of the people out there soon, things like MS OpenXML are just stones in OpenOffice shoes.

    The goal is not to open old documents (for that people use their old MS Office licenses), that is a plus but not the main goal, the main goal is to get people to write the next generation of documents in OO, and for that we do not need Open XML, only MS needs it.

  9. This just confirms that Microsoft and Mac are only interested in making money,

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