I think that the Wall Street Journal does a fairly good job covering technology from a consumer’s perspective, but I feel that they struggle whenever they try to cover more industry-focused issues, making outright mistakes and failing to understand what in the debate is actually important, which leads them to follow up (or fail to) on the wrong points. Today was no exception: in an article entitled “‘Office’ Wars,” they attempted to cover the politics revolving around Microsoft’s efforts to get their Open XML adopted as an ISO standard. The mistakes began cropping up depressingly early in the article:

To gain approval as an international standard, Microsoft had to bare the code that undergirds the Office file format, called Open XML.

Um, no. Microsoft created a brand-new file format called Open XML that is a totally different format from the ubiquitous DOC format. They then published a 5000-page specification of its supposed operation that is incomplete and inconsistent with their own Open XML implementation, which they have not had to lay bare. This not-actually-implemented-as-specified Open XML specification is the one Microsoft is trying to ram down everyone’s throats.

Jean Paoli, one of Microsoft’s top standards experts, says the company wants Open XML adopted as a standard to encourage rivals to use its format, not squelch interoperability. He points out that other vendors, including Apple Inc., are adopting it.

Apple supports reading an extremely limited subset of Open XML in TextEdit in its upcoming Mac OS X Leopard. The most recent version of Pages can also import a slightly larger subset of Open XML, but, so far as I know, can’t write it back out. Neither Pages nor TextEdit use Open XML as their native formats. I do not think that Apple’s behavior can honestly be construed as “adopting [Open XML].”

He says IBM is stirring up opposition to Open XML’s gaining approval from the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, to protect its Lotus Notes office suite, which uses the rival format Open Document.

Probably partially true, in the sense that Lotus Notes bundles a version of the open-source OpenOffice, which uses ODF as its native format, but since there actually are several word processors that work natively with ODF, I’m hazy how this could be construed to protect Lotus Notes. In fact, given that Lotus Notes used to ally itself with SmartSuite, which had a proprietary file format, I think this actually opens up Notes to more competition. Given that there are no word processors other than Word that support Open XML, I think Microsoft’s claim applies far more strongly against itself.

Open Document is already an ISO standard, but Microsoft says there’s room enough for more than one document standard.

Why? “Just because” isn’t a good enough reason. ODF has already been standardized for some time and has broad industry support. Only Microsoft Office uses something superficially resembling Open XML. This strikes me as a hilarious extrapolation of the old joke, “The only problem with standards is that there are so many to chose from.”

In addition, Mr. Robertson said, the technical committees should include lots of voices—and that means some on Microsoft’s side. “Where you find expansion in the committees, you will find expansion on both sides,” he said. “That’s OK because it represents the community a whole lot better.”

This is the “all ideas are equally valid” fallacy. If we are going to have a debate on whether we should require, by law, that people dress up in purple chicken suits and make monkey noises at 3 PM on the second Thursday of the month, no one would be particularly surprised if a committee were completely biased against the idea. Even if I tripled the size of the committee, having a purple chicken suit proponent likely would actually make the committee less representative, since the position would then be over-represented.

We have a similar situation with Microsoft’s Open XML. IBM, Sun, RedHat, Novell, Canonical, and Google, among others, support ODF. So far as I know, the only major company backing OOXML is Microsoft. Why does it follow that we should expect roughly equal numbers of OOXML proponents and detractors on any given committee?

I appreciate that the WSJ has recognized that the OOXML-ODF debate is an important one, and I’m glad that they’ll be increasing public awareness of it, but I still wish that they’d done a better job covering what’s actually going on. This is a case where both sides are not created equal, and fair reporting probably should not treat Microsoft as if they have equal merit.