Microsoft's Open XML clears hurdle, but rough ride ahead

Microsoft's Open XML file format cleared a small hurdle on 1 March, after documents released by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) showed fewer countries harbouring strong objections than had been expected.

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Microsoft's Open XML file format cleared a small hurdle on 1 March, after documents released by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) showed fewer countries harbouring strong objections than had been expected.

But the number of countries with reservations about Open XML in its current form remains large enough that the format might not be approved by ISO if it were put to a vote.

In early February 20 member nations of the Geneva-based ISO submitted responses to the proposal to put Open XML on a five-month fast-track process for approval as an open, international standard.

Open XML is being championed by another standards group, ECMA International which in December approved 20-1 a proposal to certify Open XML, the native document format in Office 2007.

At that time, parties opposing Open XML's ratification had speculated that most if not all of the comments identified fatal "contradictions" in ECMA's proposal that would lead them to openly oppose Open XML's quick certification.

In ISO-speak, a contradiction is a serious objection on technical or other reasons to ratifying a proposed standard. Within ISO, there is a vigorous debate on whether a contradiction, once identified, should spell doom to a would-be standard or signal the beginning of protracted negotiations.

Yes, no, maybe

Documents obtained by Computerworld show that six countries – Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Kenya, New Zealand and the UK – strongly opposed putting Open XML to a vote in five months. Kenya, for instance, identified 13 reasons why it opposed putting Open XML on a fast path.

Another five countries – Australia, France, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore – also identified problems they saw with Open XML's current proposal. But none stated outright their opposition to putting Open XML on an accelerated process.

The remaining countries expressed comments that ranged from neutral to divided or even positive. The US, through its member body (http://www.incits.org/) the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards, did not submit a comment.

All 11 countries expressing negative opinions sit on ISO's 30-member JTC-1 Committee on Information Technology.

For a proposed standard to be approved by ISO, two-thirds of the members of the JTC-1 committee, or 20 countries, must vote for it. Meanwhile, no more than one quarter of ISO's 157 members that cast their vote – non-JTC-1 member countries may abstain – can vote against it.

The objects of their objection

The most common stated objection is an overlap between Open XML and the alternative Open Document Format (ODF) for Office Applications format, which was already ratified by ISO last May. Several countries actually suggested "harmonising" ODF with Open XML to make them more interoperable.

Other commonly-cited objections include patent violations by Open XML, the allowance of only 30 days for countries to review ECMA's 6,000 page proposal and specific issues related to how Open XML operates technically.

ECMA's rebuttal of each of the cited objections and contradictions was released last week by ISO. The comments have not yet been posted publicly by any of the involved parties, though open-source lawyer Andy Updegrove posted excerpts on his blog.

Jason Matusow, Microsoft's director for corporate standards, declined to comment on Open XML's current chances for ISO approval.

"Do we have opinions? Yes, but we want to be respectful of the ISO process," he said.

IBM, which cast the sole vote last fall in ECMA opposing Open XML, declined to comment. The company is supporting ODF for its Workplace software as well as Lotus Notes. It has also been accused by Microsoft of meddling in Open XML's approval.

And now?

It's unclear what happens next. According to a message from the JTC-1 Secretariat, Lisa Rajchel, she will "consult with Information Technology Task Force staff regarding the next steps to be taken with the Fast Track submission. Based on this consultation, the Secretariat will communicate the next steps to JTC-1 National Bodies in the very near future."

According to sources familiar with the process, ECMA can either officially submit the Open XML proposal to ISO as-is hoping it can sway voters in five months or it can attempt to address concerns by making changes to its proposal. Worst for Open XML is if ISO decides to put Open XML on a slower mainstream track for approval, which could add months or years to the approval process.

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