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What's in a WordTM? When one electronic document format standard is not enough

Liam Magee (Global Research Cities Institute, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)
James A. Thom (School of Computer Science and Information Technology, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia)

Information Technology & People

ISSN: 0959-3845

Article publication date: 28 October 2014




The purpose of this paper is to examine the history of the standardisation of two largely overlapping electronic document formats between 2005 and 2008, and its implications for future IT standards development.


The document format controversy is researched as an exemplary case study of the institutional rivalries, perspectives and strategic interests at play in standardisation processes. The study adopts a methodological lens of discursive institutionalism in order to explain how actors assume and perform a variety of roles during the controversy. It consults a range of documentary sources, including media commentary, corporate press releases and blog posts, financial reports and technical specifications.


The study shows that: first, intentions to increase competition in the office software market through the standardisation of document formats led to a standards “arms race”; second, this further entrenched the position of a single market actor; and third, the resulting public debate nevertheless has reinvigorated the push for genuinely open standards.

Social implications

Information technology standards are often touted as mechanisms for increasing the competitiveness of a market, thereby benefitting consumers and the greater public. In the presence of dominant institutional actors, efforts to standardise can, perversely, undermine this benefit. Increased public scrutiny through online media offers a potential remedy.


This research presents a novel account of the controversy over the document format standardisation process, understood through the lens of discursive institutionalism. It also shows the increasing and potentially putative role of online media in the development of IT standards generally.



The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful remarks and contributions. Parts of this research were supported under the Australian Research Council's Linkage Projects funding scheme (project number LP0667834).


Magee, L. and A. Thom, J. (2014), "What's in a WordTM? When one electronic document format standard is not enough", Information Technology & People, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 482-511.



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