Q&A: XML Co-Creator Tim Bray

Tim Bray is co-creator of XML and director of Web technologies at Sun Microsystems. In a recent interview, Bray explained his angst over Microsoft’s decision to submit its Office 12 Open XML file formats to European standards body Ecma International. The announcement had the short-term effect Microsoft clearly wanted, when Massachusetts said that Ecma submission was “acceptable” and abandoned its stance about dropping Office because it didn’t support’s OpenDoc format.

Redmond: Do you think Microsoft is going about this file format thing the wrong way?

Tim Bray: The two really important constituencies here are end users and developers. I think they both want more or less the same things.

First of all, they want the format unencumbered so that any old programmer can use it to write anything without asking. And second, they want the data formats to be stable so they don’t change out from under you at somebody else’s whim. People don’t talk about that but it’s incredibly important.

And they would also like it to be “good” -- well-designed and so on. So those are their points of common interest. What Microsoft is doing with this probably addresses people’s needs pretty well on the stability front. Once it’s an Ecma spec nobody can change it, so that’s good.

That leaves the “openness” issue and the “quality” issue. On the openness issue, we just don’t know. The current licensing structure around the Office 12 format has problems; Brian Jones, one of Microsoft’s spokespeople, has said that it looks like you cannot implement that [the current license proposed for Office 12?] in GPL-ed [General Public License, the license that governs most open-source code] software.

What are your thoughts on OpenDoc vs. Open XML?

If you look at what Microsoft says they’re trying to accomplish here in terms of maximal stability and so on, they could achieve all those things at once by building OpenDocument format into Office. Then they wouldn’t have to go through all the pain and grief and bureaucratic overhead of the standardization process, because that’s already been done. That is really -- from the point of view of the whole world’s interest -- the simplest answer.

Didn’t Microsoft submit some of the stuff that it developed in the past to OASIS [Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, the standards organization that oversees OpenDoc]? Isn’t that where the Web Services standards for e-business communications went?

The WS standards are all over the place. Some of them are in OASIS, some of them are in W3C and so forth. But, yes, they’ve done this lots of times.

This is a big fight that’s picked up steam gradually over the past year or two. It’s the public sector customers that seem to be taking the leadership position here. And of course the big marquee names that you keep hearing about are Massachusetts and the European Union.

Their bottom line is that they need to have complete confidence that when they, as government officials, put data in a file, that file will be long-lived, because the relationship between a citizen and a government is measured in decades. [They also need to know] that it’s theirs, that nobody else has an intellectual property claim on it. And they can pay a programmer to do anything with it that meets their needs without asking anybody. They’re probably a little bit more sensitive to these issues than the private sector simply because they’ve got longer-lived data.

Since there will be plenty of third-party filters to translate between formats, why should we get worked up about all this?

Because if you would like to get the maximum value out of your intellectual property, which is to say, the data that you’ve created, you would like to have that data in an open, tractable, unencumbered format.

And, yeah, you can piece together some sort of answer with this filter and that filter and the other filter, but Massachusetts decided that the simplest thing to do was simply to require that the desktop software, by default, save documents in open formats. That strikes me as simple, easy-to-understand criteria that any vendor ought to be able to meet.

Right, but given your experience in this industry, do you think this entire issue is ever going to be settled?

I would expect that this kind of battle is going to start erupting in public sector administrations all over the world, because the same kind of market forces that are affecting Massachusetts and the EU are fairly universal and you can bet that the finance secretaries in every U.S. state government and Canadian provincial government are watching Massachusetts like a hawk.

About the Author

Stuart J. Johnston has covered technology, especially Microsoft, since February 1988 for InfoWorld, Computerworld, Information Week, and PC World, as well as for Enterprise Developer, XML & Web Services, and .NET magazines.


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