LibreOffice and support for Microsoft file formats

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 04, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

One of the intriguing aspects of LibreOffice, the fork, is that everything is open to debate. However, this atmosphere also means that the old debate about supporting proprietary Microsoft formats -- specifically the newer OOXML format -- is being revived. The trouble with this debate is that it is endless, since it is a specific example of the longstanding conflict of convenience and ethics in free software, and strong arguments exist on both sides.

The latest round in this old debate seems to have been sparked by an article published by Groklaw on December 20, 2010, which documents Novell's involvement in promoting the OOXML format. Ten days later, a message on a LibreOffice mailing list cited the Groklaw article, threatening a boycott of LibreOffice and declaring, "There is absolutely no need to write in this proprietary format. To do so is contrary to the principle of using [Open Document Format] and open source formats."

A discussion of the pros and cons followed. It became lengthy enough that, a month later, The Document Foundation, the organization that develops LibreOffice, posted an FAQ in which it stated that, while it advocated using Open Document Format, it included OOXML support as a convenience for users. In effect, The Document Foundation left the dilemma of what to do up to each user -- just as distributions like Debian and Ubuntu provide proprietary drivers, but leave users to decide whether to install them. The decision is unlikely to satisfy those who threatened a boycott, although many might argue that it is simply realistic.

The case against

The arguments against including OOXML is little different from those against using traditional Microsoft formats. The main difference is that OOXML provokes a greater sense of outrage. A few years ago, advocates of open standards campaigned hard against OOXML being accepted as an international standard, eventually losing because of allegedly sharp practices by Microsoft. Since then, the outrage has been transferred partly to Novell, whose agreements for collaboration with Microsoft have been another focus for resentment among free and open source software advocates.

Possibly, too, the fact that OOXML has not proved particularly popular and is only now -- several years after its introduction -- showing any signs of widespread use encourages those who actively oppose the format that its use can still be prevented.

Otherwise, the case against using OOXML is the same one that Richard Stallman made in his essay "We Can Put an End to Word Attachments." All Microsoft formats are imperfectly supported by free software, and likely to remain so because of Microsoft's lack of cooperation, and should be avoided on principle as proprietary.

Instead, Stallman suggests refusing attachments that include Microsoft formats, and replying with an explanation in the hopes of educating the sender. Reasons to avoid using Microsoft formats include that they are proprietary, inconsistent, monopolistic, bloated, and discourteous -- all of which is impossible to disagree with.

The case for

Yet, despite the logic in the case against Microsoft formats, people continue to use them because, when the dominant office suite is Microsoft Office, you can be sure that people can read them, and no layout issues arise because of imperfect conversion from one format to another.

These arguments are exaggerated, since free file filters for Microsoft formats are good enough for the vast majority of documents that Internet users exchange. For example, when I have been doing technical reviews of books in progress, opening files in that will later be opened in Microsoft Office has caused next to no problems.

Still, most people have little experience with free software, so problems continue to exist in their minds. In effect, many people accept that because free software alternatives are less widely known, their users must acquiesce to what is common. Just as in the early 1990s, WordPerfect filters for Microsoft Office had to be better than Microsoft Office filters for WordPerfect, so today people often accept that the burden of compatibility must fall on free office suites instead of Microsoft.

Another problem is that refusing Microsoft formats can be difficult. If you are dealing with an equal, the refusal and explanation is easy, but, if people are in someway subordinate to the sender, they may not feel free to make any objections. Send a refusal to a manager, and you risk being branded as obstructive. Send a refusal to an employment agency, and your application could be rejected as too much bother. Worse, the agency, not understanding the issues you raise, might conclude that you are so non-technical that you don't know what formats are common -- and that you are therefore unfit for any technical or office position. These possibilities seem likely enough that people might easily decide that standing on principle is more trouble than it's worth.

Besides, even if a refusal works, and you receive the offending attachments in a free format like Open Document Format, or at least in an open standard like PDF, the exchange takes at least twice as long as it otherwise would.

This line of thought can be deplored as not only short-sighted, but defeatist. After all, if Microsoft formats are never questioned, how will their monopoly ever be broken? Such points are perfectly true, and people will nod in agreement -- then go and accept and send Microsoft formats because doing so is easier than taking a stand.

The project dilemma

If this dilemma is difficult for individuals, it is even harder for free software projects. On the one hand, by including OOXML filters, The Document Foundation is working against its own success.

On the other hand, if LibreOffice excludes the filters, it applications become less of a practical alternative, especially on the Windows platform, or among newer users who are trying to transition from free software. It also risks ceding a major advantage in the future to, although currently its rival only supports importing OOXML, not saving to it. Essentially, the project can't possibly satisfy everyone.

Part of me wishes that LibreOffice would take a firmer stand. Another part of me realizes that doing so would be impractical -- and, considering Novell's support of The Document Foundation and its coding, unlikely.

Under the circumstances, The Document Foundation has done all that it can, explaining its decision at length, re-stating its endorsement of Open Document Format, and even explaining in the FAQ how to disable OOXML support. Reluctantly, I have to conclude that it is hard to see how The Document Foundation could have acted in any other way.


  • Support

    A good and fairly balanced overview of the issue.

    I do think a couple points were skipped over.

    (1) one significant problem with OOXML as an "official" ISO "standard is that it isn't (despite the official ISO stamp of approval) a real standard. As written, it can't actually be fully and properly implemented by anyone other than Microsoft. Microsoft itself has yet to implement either the "legacy" or the "strict"/final versions.

    I suspect it would be fair to say that OpenOffice and LibreOffice don't really "implement the OOXML standard" (as codified by the ISO), but rather "reverse engineer the OOXML format" (as actually implemented by MS Office), while using the published ISO OOXML standard(s) documents as a supplementary resource.

    The OpenOffice/LibreOffice deserve congratulations for their success.

    (2) there was also the matter of Microsoft's "maliciously compliant " implementation of the ODF standard in MS Office's "native" ODF support, which turned out to somehow be the only ODF implementation that wasn't reasonably compatible with any of the others. The cynicism of this blatant sabotage was only exacerbated by the fact that the earlier, Microsoft-commissioned CleverAge Office plug-in for MS Office worked pretty well (as the plug-in was commissioned by MS when they were, in the face of EU pressure, concerned with appearing cooperative, reasonable and receptive to actual open standards).

    Naturally this is the kind of behaviour that only exacerbates antipathy towards Microsoft. The temptation to play "tit for tat" is strong. But as you pointed out, this is probably not an ideal strategy in these circumstances (or at least, not for everybody).
  • Wolves in sheep clothing

    Sadly there are a lot of comments here that begin with "I'm a big supporter or this, but"

    The moment we start including proprietary extensions with FLOSS applications is the moment we increase dependency on them. Libreoffice was build to avoid depending on people and things that in their nature, are NOT dependable.

    Remove OOXML support by default, have a popup on first start asking to download it. Surely it can't be that big of a plugin if separated from the main program.

    If proprietary extensions are supported by default in Libreoffice, perhaps they should also be removed by default.

    RMS isn't out of touch. People just refuse to see.
  • Good stuff

    Great balanced article!

    I'm as rankled as the next penguin about the way OOXML standardization went down, but if we set that aside and think objectively, we have to accept that (1) LibreOffice already supports MANY proprietary formats, (2) OOXML *is* an ISO standard with published specs, no matter how it went down, (3) failure to support a widely-used published standard is a bug.

    Trying to compete by non-interoperability is not the FOSS way; that's Microsoft thinking. We're not going to out-Microsoft Microsoft, folks.
  • I often Blame Word

    Sometimes when being sent a .doc(x), I reply (usually truthfully, me and windows don't get along all that well) that something is broken in my windows-installation and that word fails to open, asking them to send a PDF instead. It usually works.
  • There are problems with both decision

    My experience is that the bigger problem is people not familiar with the Free (freedom) aspect of software. They think that "it's the computer" and don't even know the name of the program they are using (many call it "windows" even if asked what word processor are using, or say "I open the internet" and not IE or FF).
    This way, if those people use OOo/LiBo they want to use as a 100% replacement of M$Office, and have default file format to be .doc or whatever. If you make them save as odf, they then can't understand to transform in pdf before emailing, or save as .doc ONLY if really needed, nor that they should ask other to install OOo, not be forced to use M$ because of received documents.
    In any case, using (I mean, also saving) with M$ proprietary format is going to make things break (who can tell if M$ is able to detect if the .doc was created with OOo/LiBo and put code to break things in next "security patch" will automatically be installed?), and the feeling will be that OOo/LiBo "has a lot of problems".
    So the main problem is not (only) technical, but moral, people have to be informed and start to care. Without this change we will never win against proprietary (and monopolistic) programs, we will never become Free.
  • Stallman is out of touch with reality

    I'm a huge FOSS proponent. I do all my personal computing and most of my work computing on Linux. But to not include proprietary formats in LibreOffice will (not might) seal its fate and doom it to obscurity. As a businessman, if a potential customer sends me a document in .doc format and I reply with "I can't open that because of xyz moral objections" they're not going to continue to pursue the relationship. As strong as my morals are, I have to put food on the table. That's a business fact. Therefore, if LibreOffice can't open OOXML documents I will not be able to use it. I may support it in spirit, but in practical application it will be worthless to me.

    Look, I agree, Microsoft is the devil in drag, but like it or not they command just under 90% of desktop systems and that's not going to change extremely fast (though it surely will change). Linux is playing follow the leader, and until Linux is on top (which I believe it can be) we have to play nice with the other kids in the playground, even when they throw sand in our hair.
  • better add a plugin /addon

    better add a plugin /addon for M$ formats which can be additionally downloaded than continuing ahead with a tad distaste.
    that should be easier and console everyone's spirit happy
  • Ease of Transittion

    I say put it in

    First off it is something people are willing to add and have worked on creating (conversion tools) it would be bad karma to put politics over honest effort to improve LibreOffice. Besides open office will still be the default format for documents.

    Second, Libreoffice should not be using file formats as a form of DRM against its users, let the big corporations do that, they should provide that so users can easily transition into LibreOffice when they discover that LibreOffice offers a more valuable, coherent and stable working environment than the commercial alternative, having that format available just makes the transition for the non technical user almost trivial - which is a "good thing".

    So why don't we get off the format war soapbox, LibreOffice should provide it, if it hopes to ever get converts from the MS Office clientelle, I think there are bigger fish to fry in getting the user experience improved in other aspects, such as user interface, bugfixing, performance improvement, etc.
  • refusal notes

    "Stallman suggests refusing attachments that include Microsoft formats, and replying with an explanation in the hopes of educating the sender."

    While a greatly admire what Stallman has done, this particular advice is pigheaded, stupid and just plain rude. It is what is generally referred to as "leading with your asshole".
  • Erratum

    Sorry, meant to say "any other open standard" rather than "OOXML". OOXML stuck in the brain while I was all het up.
  • Has anyone spoken to the paying customers?

    While I usually wholeheartedy agree with Stallman, this time all I have is a vehement rebuttal. What if someone is a freelance technical editor? What if her client uses Microsoft at the office? Are you saying that her next meal should depend, not on her skills, rapport with the client, reputation or years of experience, but solely on whether said client uses Microsoft? Is she, as an open-source advocate, supposed to take a substantial hit in her pocket and refuse the contract based purely on this one criterion that has nothing to do with her actual worth? Further, what if she has a family?

    Surely I can make a BETTER case for open standards if I'm engaging with "the enemy" rather than considering clouds from my ivory tower? And, in fact, that's what I've done. Everyone around me knows I'm a strong open-source supporter. I even blogged about LibreOffice recently. But alienate people like me, people who have to write to live, who have to learn the eccentricities of a variety of products from Microsoft to WordPerfect to LibreOffice and FrameMaker (just to name a few), and OOXML will very soon go nowhere. When standards go up against a paycheck, guess what wins? Depressing, I know, but that's called reality.

    * And, just for the record, Microsoft isn't the only company that uses formats that are proprietary, inconsistent, monopolistic, bloated and any tech writer/editor will be able to tell you.
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