Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Open XML – the beginning of the end?

The decision has been made and a new reality has risen. We now have two ISO approved document standards that claim to be open. “Open” is an interesting key phrase in our time, just like “green” and “soap”. The discussion will rage on about the fairness of the procedure, about whether the ISO has been damaged because of all this, but that’s only interesting for historians and wikipedia editors. Microsoft has what it wanted (ISO approval of it’s in-house developed standard) and the free and open source world is looking at the ashes on the battelfield. But, does it really matter?

Personally I don’t think it makes a lot of difference now that Open XML has it’s seal of approval. It wouldn’t have mattered much even it hadn’t gotten it. This isn’t the beginning of a new march to world domination of Microsoft Office and it isn’t the beginning of the end of free and open source office suites. What will happen? Microsoft will get to work on implementing Open XML into it’s product line and might even spend some time and money on creating a (near) perfect support for OpenDocument. Having both standards available is a great boon in negotiations with governments. Of course, no one can blame our friends in Redmond if Open XML is the default standard. I even expect them to extend a helping hand to the free and open source community in order for them to have a (near) perfect support for Open XML, whether it is accepted or not.

The next battlefield is the hearts and minds of the end-users. And, frankly, they have absolutely no clue what the fuzz is about, even if they got notice of the fuzz. Most users don’t think twice, or even once, about the format in which to save documents. They just click “save”, give the document a name and that’s it. Does anyone still remember the problems some users ran into after testing Office 2007? They had saved all documents in the new .docx format, which couldn’t be opened anymore after the trial period ended. Do we really expect the same users to think about whether to store their documents in OpenDocument or OpenXML?

Not automatically, no. The next battle will be fought with the tools of commerce, especially marketing and advertising. The free and open source world has one major problem here: we are not good in advertising and marketing. And I don’t mean “not good” as in “not having the financial warchest Microsoft has”. I mean “not good” as in “problems in positioning free and open source solutions in terms that appeal to the needs and wants of end-users”. Those end-users are sometimes politicians, on which some free and open source lobbyists have put their hope. But politicians are often as IT-illiterate as the majority of their voters. The European Union has turned into a legal arena where US-competitors try to curb the influence of Microsoft (which is hardly succesful on their home turf) and with the help of Neelie Kroes this resulted in some interesting results. But, the term of the current European Commission is about to end in 2009 and who knows what will happen then.

Relying on the political and legal arena to push free and open source solutions to the mainstream is not the right way. The German Open Source Yearbook 2008 has some interesting accounts of migrations to free and open solutions in four cities. The key problems were not technical in nature, but were human. People should feel a positive attachment to free and open solutions in order to make the transition from the known (i.e. Windows, Microsoft Office) to the unknown (i.e Linux, etc.). From this perspective it could be a wise thing to extend the communities with people who are more marketing- and advertising savvy and actually start listening more to their feedback. In the end, the slyck might determine the future of free and open solutions more than we expect.


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