Petreley's column: Standard document formats

Readers have asked on numerous occasions for me to pressure vendors to adopt and publish standard file formats. I've started that column a dozen times, but always found it too difficult to write. I'm just too pessimistic to think that anything I say on the topic could make a difference.

Most of these readers complain about file formats because of problems they have had sharing documents created with different versions of Microsoft Office. What these readers are really saying, therefore, is that they want Microsoft to adopt a set of consistent file formats. Really demanding readers want Microsoft to release these formats into the public domain so that other office suites can adopt them.

For the record, I will now gladly encourage Microsoft to take these measures. You can't say that I didn't try.

But if you ask me whether Microsoft will comply with these requests, I think there's a better chance that aquatic mammals will fly out of Majorca.

Incidentally, some readers applauded Sun Microsystems for announcing its intention to open up the document formats for StarOffice. They view this as the first step toward a solution to the file format problem.

I hope they're right. But, if they are, I have a feeling we're looking at five to 10 years before the ultimate solution is found. Obviously, StarOffice and its Web cousin, StarPortal, have to become the predominant office suites before their document formats can be considered the de facto standard. If there is a chance of that happening at all, it probably won't happen quickly.

Therefore, the only way Sun's move to open up its formats can become immediately meaningful is if Microsoft adopts them for its office suite. Do I need to come up with a colourful metaphor to describe how unlikely that will be?

Here's another reason I'm pessimistic. I'm afraid customers who are uneducated about XML will mistakenly believe XML is going to eventually solve this problem.

Microsoft is positioning XML as if it were the open way to create interchangeable document types. Well, it can be. But it is a very big mistake to think that the documents one produces with XML are themselves an open standard just because XML is an open standard. There is no such correlation.

Put it this way. HTML is a standard, but one reason HTML is a mess today is because people have extended it to promote their own products. And when they couldn't extend the HTML standard itself, they simply did things like embed new tags into comments.

If HTML has problems because it has been extended, what do you think the possibilities are for XML? XML ain't called Extensible Markup Language for nothing. XML is designed to be extended the way that HTML wasn't. XML brings organisation to the extensions, but it does nothing to prevent people from using the extensibility to serve only their proprietary products.

It's just plain silly to assume XML is automatically going to make it easier to exchange documents. Microsoft can adopt XML as a standard and still pack its documents full of proprietary data objects. The only difference is that the proprietary objects are wrapped with standard tags. But you aren't going to be able to import ActiveX controls into WordPerfect for Linux just because the controls are wrapped in XML. It just doesn't work that way.

That's not to say that Microsoft cannot use XML to produce open documents. It certainly can if it so chooses. But when has Microsoft ever done anything but attempt to trap its customers into using Microsoft products? What evidence is there that Microsoft has turned over a new leaf regarding its future use of XML?

That's why I hold out little hope that Microsoft will actually use XML to open up document formats. Until Microsoft demonstrates that its intentions are good by forking over products that produce documents that are platform-and application-neutral, all Microsoft's talk about Distributed interNet Application (DNA) and open standards is nothing more than hot air.

But as I said. I'm pessimistic.

Keep your eye on Spain, just in case.

Nicholas Petreley is editorial director of LinuxWorld (www.linuxworld.com). Reach him at nicholas_petreley@infoworld.com, and visit his forum at www.infoworld.com/.

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