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Leslie D'Monte: Double standards

Leslie D'Monte  |  Mumbai 

September 2, 2007 is a red-letter day for those who support a single standard when it comes to "open source". It's the last day for countries "" including India "" to submit their votes on Microsoft's Open Office eXtensible Mark-up Language (OOXML) being accepted as an alternate standard for electronic documents by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). India is being represented by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).
Recognition by the ISO simplifies the use of documents. However, if the vote goes in favour of Microsoft, the world will have to contend with two open-source formats "" ODF and OOXML "" and "multiple standards are always bad," says experts. The Open Document Format or ODF was adopted in 2006. It is the first electronic document format which supports applications like OpenOffice.org, KOffice, StarOffice, and online Google tools.
While majors like IBM, Red Hat, Novell, Apple and the Free Software Foundation (all part of the ODF alliance) support the open document format, Microsoft does not subscribe to the ODF line of thinking. It has proposed that its own version "" OOXML "" should be adopted as an alternate format specification for electronic documents such as memos, reports, books, spreadsheets, charts, presentations and word-processing documents.
Microsoft maintains that while it could have supported the Open Document Format, it had to move to MS-OOXML because this was the only way for them to offer the full features of its office suite. The specification was originally developed by Microsoft for its Microsoft Office 2007 product suite and was published by Ecma International in December 2006.
Multiple standards create a problem. Take, for instance, a case wherein you want to retrieve an old land record from a government office in India. If the record is in the OOXML format, then ODF document users would need a converter to decode the record. Likewise, OOXML users would have a problem with ODF documents. Microsoft has a tie-up with Novell, so the conversion may be smooth. But that's not the case with other companies.
Application developers too will face a major problem with two standards. To begin with, they have to study the OOXML document which is 6,000 pages long. Second, it will involve a lot of additional time and money to make applications adhere to two standards, rather than a single one. Such was the case when developers had to write hyper-text mark-up language (HTML) pages that could be read both in Netscape (Mozilla "" now it has Firefox) and Internet Explorer (Microsoft) browsers. The ensuing confusion was for all to see in the form of garbled text and fonts besides pages that were not of uniform length.
Third, argue ODF alliance members, "public data should be in a public format." Numerous public administrations "" in North America, Latin America, and especially in Europe "" have taken steps encouraging, and sometimes imposing, the use of the ODF format in administrations. In India too, the governments of Delhi and Kerala support openoffice.org.
In fact, this February, the CPI(M) had written to the former IT & Telecom minister, Dayanidhi Maran, that Microsoft's OOXML proposal should be evaluated thoroughly and that the BIS should not abstain from voting on the issue. "The Communist Party of India (Marxist) believes open standards are extremely important to India's future. Our sovereignty and independence cannot be compromised in this critical area," wrote Prakash Karat, General Secretary, CPI(M). The verdict should be out by September end. Incidentally, just last week, South Africa too voted against the OOXML document format.

First Published: Tue, July 24 2007. 00:00 IST
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