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Impact of Technological Lock-in: Case of ooxml in India

Users of software for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations could find themselves experiencing technological lock-in if the Office Open Extensible Markup Language is adopted as another open standard. Some of the detrimental effects of such a lock-in are increased costs of technology access, dependency on a single vendor and restricted user choices.


Impact of Technological Lock-in: Case of OOXML in India

P Vigneswara Ilavarasan, Shantanu Gupta

by a technical committee under the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) over a period of five years. OASIS consisted of Google, HP, Adobe, Intel, IBM, Oracle, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems and individual members. ODF is a community developed

Users of software for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations could find themselves experiencing technological lock-in if the Office Open Extensible Markup Language is adopted as another open standard. Some of the detrimental effects of such a lock-in are increased costs of technology access, dependency on a single vendor and restricted user choices.

Views expressed are personal. We are grateful to Dr Jai for the valuable inputs on the technical issues.

P Vigneswara Illavarasan ( is assistant professor, department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and Shantanu Gupta ( is a graduate student at the department of management studies, IIT Delhi.

he objectives of this paper are twofold. It tries to examine whether Office Open Extensible Markup Language (OOXML), a recently proposed open standard to describe data in a structured text format, word processing, is a case of “technological lock-in”. Secondly, it attempts to predict the impact of adoption of this format in a developing country like India. Such an analysis is important as adoption of an inappropriate technology will stifle the ongoing efforts of the government in building the inclusive information society and will result in irreversible technological lock-in.

OOXML is a proposed open standard for word-processing documents, presentations and spreadsheets that can be implemented on multiple applications on multiple platforms [Ngo 2006]. It was developed by Microsoft based on its proprietary product suite, Office 2007 and was presented for the fast track approval to International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) by the European Computers Manufacturers Association (ECMA) in December 2006. During the first round of voting, in September 3, 2007, member countries at the ISO did not approve OOXML as an open standard. India voted negative and raised more than 80 technical objections. ECMA is expected to respond to the comments and solve the inadequacies before the final voting scheduled during February last week at Geneva [for further details, see Dataquest 2007]. If all the objections are addressed, OOXML will become another open standard along with the Open Document Format (ODF) which was approved in 2005.

ODF was founded by the Star Division, in 1999 which was later acquired by the Sun Microsystems. In 2000, ODF was transferred to the open source software domain. The process of developing ODF as a formal document standard was initiated format, non-proprietary, free and can be implemented independently. It guarantees long-term access to data without legal or technical barriers. It is being implemented by various vendors in the open and free source office suites.

Technological Lock-in?

Technological lock-in is one of the widely discussed topics under the study of technology adoption. It refers to the process by which users are considerably dependent on one technology and switching cost to some other technology is high apart from a steep learning curve. Vendor lockin comes into effect when users are dependent on only one vendor who owns and controls the technology utilised by the users.

To quote: Arthur (1989)

...When two or more increasing-return technologies ‘compete’ then for a ‘market’ of potential adopters, insignificant events may by chance give one of them an initial advantage in adoptions. This technology may then improve more than others, so it may appeal to a wider proportion of potential adopters. It may therefore become further adopted and further improved. Thus a technology that by chance gains an early lead in adoption may eventually ‘corner the market’ of potential adopters, with the other techno logies becoming locked out (p 116).

There is a possibility that locked out technologies are superior to the incumbent ones. An economic history analysis [David 1985] showed that QWERTY keyboard format became dominant over other efficient formats in spite of the fact that it was not the most superior one. Also, if one of the two rival technologies is sponsored (controlling property rights of the techno logy), it may be adopted despite inferior in qua lity [Katz and Shapiro 1986]. Also an individual’s lock-in extends to institutional lock-in where organisations also tend to get locked-in with certain technology or vendor.

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The lock-in phenomenon cannot be igno red when it is not socially optimal or entire users group or institutions are dependent on one vendor for supplying that dominant technology. For instance, one cannot accept the situation where even a single user needs to pay for using the QW-ERTY keyboard irrespective of the application (computers or type writers) he or she is using. In this kind of situation, intervention of the government is required to reach the socially optimal technology. Particularly, when several technologies appear as choices in the market, policy initiatives should be driven by inclusive and welfare orientations.

Establishing industry wide open standards help to circumvent technological lock-in by a single proprietary technology. Open standards are:

...transparent descriptions of data and behaviour that form the basis of interoperability. Interoperability is the ability of different software systems to exchange information, resulting in equivalent users outcomes. In practice, the interoperability means that users are not locked to any software (technological) system – they can substitute one standards-compliant systems for other [Dalziel 2006, p 4].

Hence, it is important to understand whether the proposed OOXML is a genuine case of open standard. Following are the claims made by the Microsoft (2007a) in the process of getting open standard status for the OOXML, and criticisms of the same.

Open and Royalty Free

The OOXML formats are based on OOXML technologies which are universally accessible. The specification for the formats and schemes are published and made available under the same royalty-free licence that exists today for the Microsoft Office 2003 Reference Schemes, and that is openly offered and available for broad industry use [Keizer 2006].

There is, however, a catch in the licence agreement which says that we can use the technology on offer by Microsoft, but only if we agree “not to allow sublicensing”. This means that this technology is not compatible with the socially acceptable licensing systems in use for commodity systems, like the copyleft. Though OOXML appears as non-proprietary, it restricts

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such freedom to modify and distribute [Jones 2005].


With industry-standard XML at the core of the OOXML formats, exchanging data between Microsoft Office applications and enterprise business systems is simplified. Without requiring access to the office appli cations, solutions can alter information inside an Office document or create a document by using standard tools and technologies capable of manipulating XML. The new formats enable to build archives of documents without using Office code [Microsoft 2007, 2007a].

Since “Open XML was designed from the start to be capable of faithfully representing the pre-existing corpus of wordprocessing documents, presentations, and spreadsheets that are encoded in binary formats defined by Microsoft Corpo ration” [Ngo 2006], the format specification provide space for other software vendors to create office applications to view and manipulate the documents. However, this is almost impossible for other office suites to inter-operate without understanding of the binary formats which are proprietary. Also there needs to be a mapping tool between the binary file and the OOXML file formats to help users achieve interoperability as claimed.

Microsoft has successfully completed the OOXML Translator project that will help translate between the office OOXML formats and the ODF [Mook 2007]. This will give users more choice in terms of different formats available for their use.

However, there are no such converters available for other office suite components like spreadsheets or presentations [LaMonica 2007]. Also the translators are not bundled along with the Office 2007. In addition, the format in which the documents are saved in the Office 2007 suite is incompatible with Mac Office application [Macworld 2006], with the users still waiting for a compatibility pack similar to that provided for Windows users. With further delay in the Office Converter [Wilcox 2007], it has to be seen whether the true interoperability claims by Microsoft would stand the test when the formats for its Mac and Windows Office suites are not interoperable.

Also as a proposed standard, OOXML is expected to use the pre-existing standards. But it does not make use of already approved standard ODF. It does not provide any reason why it is not doing so, even though it is overlapping with the ODF [Nagarjuna 2007].


The openness of the OOXML formats translates to more secure and transparent files. Users can share documents confidently because they can easily identify and remove personally identifiable information and business-sensitive information, such as user names, comments, and file paths.

The entire OOXML format was developed by Microsoft itself, and there was no participation from the individual members, and proceedings of the specification formulation is not kept open [Andersen 2006]. A 6,000 page long specification document was kept open for only 30 days to be reviewed by the members. Also, no extended peer review has been done till now to justify the security status. In contrast, ODF took six years to be declared as an open standard.

With OOXML being a part of the Office package for Windows Vista, Microsoft has built into Vista, the “trusted computing” ability to lock down Office files via Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology so that no unauthorised dealer will be able to decrypt and read them [Doctorow 2006]. The Trusted Computing DRM technology which is built into Vista and Office 2007 suite would lead to the documents being used by only those people who have these or later versions of Microsoft products, or third party products which are Microsoft authorised compliant [Howorth, 2006]. DRM technology could well lock-in users to Microsoft products by determining whether or not users could access documents without first buying Microsoft or its sanctioned products.

Also, there has been no proven complete implementation of OOXML by any other software vendor or firm other than Microsoft. Also, the size of the standard details is too large, about 6000+ pages making it complex for the third parties to implement support for the standard [Economic Times 2007a].


Also, OOXML is not meeting the existing requirements set by the ISO. For example, with respect to dates and times (IS0 8601), “OOXML represents the dates as integers from December 31, 1899 with the caveat that 1900 needs to be incorrectly considered a leap year, or January 1, 1004 depending on a configuration setting. This is enormously inconsistent with the standard which represent the date more descriptively” [Macnaghten 2007, p 28, also see for a list of inconsistencies]. This will become a major area of concern when older data are electronically stored in the spread sheets.

The above criticisms are made available in the public space by the supporters of the ODF. Response of the Microsoft is not available, except accusing a rival firm of leading campaign to block OOXML [Microsoft 2007b]. On the other hand, ODF had not generated any accusations of lock-in, while fulfilling the requirements as an open standard.

In the light of above, we infer that OOXML is inadequate to fulfil the requirements of an open standard, and hence pointing towards an insidious attempt of technological lock-in. Such attempt has far reaching implications for developing countries which are increasingly investing in information and communication technology (ICT) for national development.

OOXML in India

ICT is an integral part of development strategies of both developing and developed countries. It has great potential to bring in desired social transformations by enhancing access to people, services, information and other technologies [Dutton 2004]. ICT applications “can enhance poor people's opportunities by improving their access to markets, health, and education. Furthermore, ICT can empower the poor by expanding the use of government services, and reduce risks by widening access to micro finance” [Cecchini and Scott 2003: 73].

Targets set by the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), 2003, are being used by the countries to build ICT development. The ten targets are: (1) connect villages with ICTs and establish community access points; (2) connect universities, colleges, secondary schools, and primary schools with ICTs; (3) connect scientific and research centres with ICTs; (4) connect

public libraries, cultural centres, museums, post offices, and archives with ICTs;

(5) connect health centres and hospitals with ICTs; (6) connect all local and central government departments and establish web sites and e-mail addresses; (7) adapt all primary and secondary school curricula to meet the challenges of the information society, taking into account national circumstances; (8) ensure that all of the world’s population has access to television and radio services; (9) encourage the development of content and to put in place technical conditions in order to facilitate the presence and use of all world languages on the internet; and (10) ensure that more than half the world’s inhabitants have access to ICTs within their reach.

Initiatives taken by the Indian government like common service centres, state data centres and local language content development are aligned with the targets set by the WSIS. But the current position of India is only 54 in the Economist's e-readiness index (2007). India scored a low score of 2.9 out of 20 in the techno logy and infrastructure sub-component.This highlights the need to strengthen the ICT infrastructure in the country and to connect the digital have-nots to better opportunities,

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information and the government services. To quote Dutton (2004):

...decisions that affect the design, accessibility, and use (or non-use) of these technologies (ICTs) could open or close the wrong gates and shut out individuals, communities, countries, and regions from the fruits that can be reached by those who can better control access to themselves, and from themselves to the world (p 13).

As the country is striving toward becoming an information society, adoption of a particular technology should not jeopardise its efforts. The ICT environment in India is centred on personal computers (PCs). For example all the e-government projects are PC-driven tele-kiosks or intranet kiosks. Technology that drives the PC, operations systems and applications should enhance low cost accessibility and provide opportunities to operate/interact with others. The technology should not hinder present initiatives in terms of cost, and future actions in terms of accessibility.

ICT technology standards help the government by being pivotal in stimulating innovation, creating value, effective procurement and reducing the regulatory burden. They are developed through formal (e g, ISO) or informal (e g, consortia) frameworks and provide significant contribution to increasing trade, improving efficiencies and mitigating operational risk. In light of the above, the paper will discuss the possible impact of adopting OOXML in India in the social and environmental domains.

Social Impact

In India, there are about 20 million PCs.1 India seems to be following the global trend, where 95 per cent of the PCs are run by Microsoft's operating systems and office applications. In other words, documents created by most of the PCs in India are of proprietary formats and controlled by a single vendor Microsoft. As of now, a document in OOXML format can be created by default only by Office 2007, an application software that can run only on operating systems Vista or XP owned by the Microsoft.

According to a news report, only 15 per cent of existing computers in India have the memory and graphics cards powerful

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enough to run premium versions of Vista, and most users will have to buy a whole new computer if they want to upgrade [Economic Times, 2007]. The existing PCs that use an immediate lower version of operating systems (XP or 2000) and Office suites need to upgrade to 2007 version to enable them to create OOXML formats. This results in increasing cost to the users.

The Windows XP-based PCs which are currently in the market have the following recommended configuration (Microsoft 2006): 300 MHz or higher processor; 256 MB RAM or higher; 1.5 GB or higher hard disk space and CD-ROM or higher. With the advent of Vista, the user will have to upgrade their systems or buy new systems with the following configuration (Microsoft 2006): 1 GHz or higher processor, 1 GB RAM or higher; 15 GB or higher free hard disk space; internal or external DVD-ROM drive; and direct X 9-capable graphics processor with 32 MB of graphics memory. A study by Computer Weekly, using desktop specifications from Microsoft and Dell, has calculated that the recommended PC for Vista could cost users £ 350 more than a typical business PC running Windows XP SP2 [Mohamed and Saren 2006].

Apart from higher hardware costs to create OOXML documents, software costs (Vista and Office Suite 2007) is also a mini mum of Rs 13, 000 (£ 175). There are no alternatives in the market. However to create an ODF document, software cost is almost zero as both operating systems and office suite like open office are available free of cost.

This increasing cost is detrimental to ICT accessibility. For instance, government’s efforts to increase the PC penetration rate from 11 per thousand in 2004 to 65 in 2008 will be hampered. The penetration rate might not increase as expected as more money will be spent on sustaining the earlier PCs and buying new PCs.

Limited ICT accessibility results in low computer literacy, poor accessibility to information and increased cost of accessing e-government services. With e-governance being the major focus of the Indian government, amounts to the tune of $ 2,500 million are being invested in the national e-governance plan 2003-08, out of which the major amount is spent in procuring hardware and services [Shah 2007]. The rise in the prices of the personal computer would have a significant impact on the spending pattern.

This increasing cost is not taken seriously by the general users or the government owing to existing high rate of piracy. The piracy rates in India are 71 per cent with losses amounting to $1,275 million as per BSA IDC survey, 2006 [BSA 2007]. Though the high cost of the proprietary software triggers piracy, high rate of piracy implies that accessibility cost of software is very low with an increasing number of people starting to use personal computers. In other words, pirated software in India provides digital access to millions who cannot afford to spend large amounts of money towards proprietary software.

If the use of proprietary software is made mandatory, users might end up using pirated versions as the licence cost is high. In India, most of the population uses Windows operating system in their computers might end up using the pirated versions of Windows. Adoption of open standards will help in making the software available at a negligible price and would reduce piracy to a great extent.

The availability of Vista may be good news for those who support intellectual property regimes. The enhanced security features of Vista distinguish the pirated copy from the original ones, and do not provide future security updates. Further the pirated copies would run in a reduced functionality mode and vulnerable to future security threats [Hartje 2006]. In this manner, the user will eventually have to switch to a genuine copy which would cost substantially more. This movement towards genuine software is also accelerated by the government’s increased efforts to tighten intellectual property rights environment. If India follows the path of China and implements “no naked PC” policy, i e, all PC manufacturers are bound to include a legal operating system in their machines, then the piracy rates would decline considerably. But if the PC manufacturers tie-up with proprietary software vendors to include legal OS, then there will not be any low cost and affordable PCs.

The Indian government has been introducing and executing various ICT development initiatives [see DIT 2007 for details]. Some of them are national e-governance



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plan, common service centres, state data centres, state wide area network, and ID for BPL families. Hardware, applications and system resources are the major cost inputs in these mass projects. With the rise in prices and the resources being limited, the plans to empower the rural masses through accessibility of information could be put in jeopardy. In United Kingdom the cost of internet access is Rs 100 per hour but in India it is one-fifth of that at approximately Rs 20 per hour. While all the costs are proportionately lower, cost of proprietary software cost remains rigid. Thus in India buying authorised copies of Microsoft operating system is almost 50 per cent of equipment expenditure but in UK its just 10 per cent.

The impact of OOXML and Vista is even starker on the primary and secondary education in the country. According to the 7th All India Education Survey (2005) conducted by National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) [NCERT 2006], computer education and penetration to schools is very low. Only

26.8 per cent of the total secondary schools had computer education and only 18 per cent had adequate number of computers. At the higher secondary level, 46.7 per cent had computer education and 33.5 per cent had adequate number of compu ters. The situation in the rural areas is even more depressing, with only 16.8 per cent of schools having computer education and a meagre 9 per cent having adequate number of computers. With the increase in prices of personal computers due to the advent of

The article critically analyses and concludes that OOXML is a case of technological lock-in. It also examines the implications of adoption of OOXML in India on two domains, social and environmental. The examination highlighted that adoption of OOXML will result in higher cost of ICT accessibility, and limit the ongoing efforts to build the information society in India. Also, upgradation process necessitated by the OOXML will result in increase in e-waste in India along with dumping from the developed countries.


In conclusion the paper wishes that the OOXML should be devoid of technological lock-in attempts, and should enhance the choices available for the users. OOXML implementation should be made possible by various vendors thus reducing cost to the users. Developing countries like India should insist on genuine open standards to keep their citizens free from bonding by a single proprietary technology of a single vendor. Also adoption of technology supported by a community rather than a single sponsor will keep the cost of procuring and maintaining to a greater minimum.


1 According to World Bank, there were 11 PCs per thousand in 2004. Based on the population in 2004 the number of PCs are 11.7 million. If the number of PCs sold for two years as per the industry estimates [MAIT 2006] are added, the number totals to 20 million as in 2005-06.


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