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New MS XML Strategy?

So awhile back I wrote regarding their XML file formats:

As for Microsoft, they have two choices: open their file formats (e.g. submit them to a standards body, and remove any legal restrictions) to stem the tide toward OD, or add the ability to read and write OD to its suite.

Now MS has appeared to choose something vaguely like the first option, agreeing to submit the formats to the ECMA and then ISO, and modifying their license.

Certainly this looks like a kind of progress (though them choosing to support OD would be better still), but the devil will be in the details. First, I seriously doubt the standards process here will allow any real outside input. This seems quite likely to be more of a ratification process than anything.

I wrote a small little namespaced citation schema that has been approved for inclusion in OpenDocument. There’s no technical reason (legal may be another thing; see below) it couldn’t be included in Microsoft’s file formats too. If this was an open process, perhaps that could well be a positive outcome from my standpoint, certainly for interoperability’s sake. Likewise, I have figured out a way to transplant the logic from my citation style language into OpenDocument. Why not Office XML?

My point above is not necessarily a specific proposal, so much as to give a sense of what most us mean when we talk about openness.

Second, the major issue for me beyond this has always been the licensing details. Here’s Microsoft’s Brian Jones:

In addition to this move towards standardization, we are also going to make some changes to our licensing approach. I’ve definitely heard the concern from folks over the past few months around the licenses. We want to make this issue much simpler as well as address the core concern, which was that some folks thought we might somehow sue people for using the formats. Obviously we don’t want anyone to have that concern, so in order to clear up any other uncertainties related to how and where you can use our formats, we are moving away from our royalty free license, and instead we are going to provide a very simple and general statement that we make an irrevocable commitment not to sue. I’m not a lawyer, but from what I can see, this “covenant not to sue” looks like it should clear the way for GPL development which was a concern for some folks.

Forgive me for harboring some well-deserved skepticism, Brian, but until the license has been vetted by outside lawyers, I’ll reserve judgment. The criterion is really simple: can the MS file formats be implemented by anyone without restriction? All else is just marketing magic.

update: Andy Updegrove has a detailed comparison of the new MS no-sue covenant with the one Sun offered for OpenDocument. His conclusion? That MS not gone nearly far enough in addressing the concerns that open standards advocates have about the legal encumbrances MS has attached to the schemas, and that it fall significantly short of where Sun stands with OpenDocument. Much of the smart commentary from today has come to a similar conclusion; that MS has tried to do as little as possible while trying to use this as a marketing opportunity to convince people (particularly the press) that it has done much more.

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